Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Before Danny Boyle graced us with my favorite of his films, Trainspotting, and before he terrified us with his low-budget zombie revival film, 28 Days Later, and before all of his Oscar nominations and wins, he gave us his directorial debut with a small film called Shallow Grave. It’s a story about drugs, murder, money and friends that highlights all of the things that would make Danny Boyle a great director as his career progressed. Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox, Shallow Grave is a must watch for any Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox, or British film fan.
Shallow Grave begins by introducing us to David, Juliet, and Alex, three friends and flat mates who are looking to fill a vacant room in their flat. The first few minutes of the film consist of a montage of interviews with potential flat mates, which also works to introduce the type of humor Danny Boyle will be utilizing in the film as well as why the three protagonists are friends. It’s clear from the beginning that even though these three people are friends, there are some significant differences in how they behave and what choices they make as they go through life. They eventually find their new flat mate in Hugo, a mysterious individual who has “never killed anyone.” Hugo moves into the flat and locks himself in his room. After a period of time David, Alex, and Juliet realize they haven’t seen Hugo and decide to go looking for him. The three break into his room and find Hugo dead with a suitcase full of money and a large quantity of drugs. The remainder of the film becomes a moral quandary of what to do with the body and whether they should keep the money. Slowly, the three friends escalate into madness as greed and guilt become a wedge between them.
When I first heard about this film I had expected something more like Weekend At Bernie’s, but what I got was further from that. This film is a very serious look at what greed and guilt can do to a friendship. The film effectively shows each individual’s mental state and personality at the beginning of the film and by the end of the film each character has changed in some way and very clearly shows that change. Everything in between is a muddied mess of illogical behaviors and events that make the characters feel more two-dimension instead of being well-rounded, living, breathing characters. Each of the character’s lack some of the delicate emotional nuances that would make them fully relatable people, but that in no way hinders the film because it feels more like fable than just a generic Hollywood story.
The most distracting part of the film was its lack of temporal and spatial awareness. When the three protagonists find their new flat mate dead, it is not disclosed how long he has been dead or how long he had been living with them. Because of the magic of film, this could be a day, or two days, or a week, or any amount of time the viewer wants to impose on the film. I assumed it had been a few days, but there was nothing to support my belief on the film. The film never establishes when he move into the flat in relation to when he interviews for the room or even how long the protagonists have been interviewing other applicants. The film stabilizes a bit after the dead body is found, but the ending gets close to losing the cadence established in the middle of the film. A majority of the film takes place in the flat that the protagonists live in, but there are some moments when the events of the film take place in other locations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of the important events happen in the flat. It just feels out of place when Alex and Juliet are meeting in a shady basement somewhere and we have no idea why or what significance (if there is any) the basement has to the characters. The temporal and spatial issues with the film don’t detract from the film in anyway, and the story still manages to stand on its own, but it does make for a very choppy film watching experiences that might be confusing or unpleasant to some people. Because this is a directorial debut, I am willing to give Mr. Boyle a pass.
For a first feature length film, Shallow Grave is impressive, especially since the second film for Danny Boyle is Trainspotting. Even from the beginning Danny Boyle knew how to take an impressive script and mold it to his own visual style of story telling. There are plenty of elements in this film that are only improved in his later work (most of it with the same writer, John Hughes). This film is a must-watch for anyone who enjoys a story about murder, guilt, greed, and friendship.