EMPIRE ESSAY: Shallow Grave Review

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Three friends discover their new flatmate dead but loaded with cash. Internal wrangles ensue with grissley results..


Shallow Grave hit like an electric shock. Here was a rave of a thriller, pounding with energy and pulsing with tension right through to its brutal twist ending. And although some decided it was Tarantino-esque and a British Reservoir Dogs — admittedly there is a common formula element of conspirators falling out and both memorably feature a vintage pop tune loudly as blood spreads on the floor — the cuts, pans, style flourishes and coolly sardonic tone are more Coens than Quentin.

The most exciting aspect of Shallow Grave is its acute Britishness and the unsentimental modernity of that characteristic. The collaborative triumvirate of writer John Hodge, producer Andrew McDonald and director Danny Boyle, all making their first feature film, successfully negotiated a sharp, smart, cracking thriller. There is scarcely a homage to Baling, a reference to the tough Brit thrillers of the 60s, a literary source or a cheeky Cockney in sight. The narrator, David, says, "This could have been any city. They're all the same". In some ways, yes. But there wouldn't be a parking space in front of the building in Manhattan for suspicious vehicles to bring detectives (one of whom is John Hodge) straight to the door. In Paris the flatmates would fret more about the meaning of life. It is also precisely of its time, in its smarty-pants attitude, the cruel, mocking humour, the mean-spiritedness and the brash, uninhibited vitality. Three frankly obnoxious, alarmingly realistic flatmates — journalist Alex Law (McGregor), doctor Juliet Miller (Fox) and accountant David Stevens (Eccleston) — seek a fourth. The self-satisfied trio subject a string of applicants to humiliating quizzings and dismiss one hapless candidate because, they taunt him, he lacks the "presence, charisma, style and charm" they believe they ooze.

When the mysterious Hugo (Keith Allen) turns up claiming to be a novelist and demonstrates both a simpatico smugness and ample funds, he's invited in. He creeps in during the night, but when he fails to make an appearance the three friends break down his bedroom door to find his nude corpse artistically sprawled, a stash of drugs and, ta-da, a suitcase packed with cash.

What to do? What to do? The most reasonable greedy course would be to stash the bundles of banknotes (interestingly never totalled for our benefit, inviting the self-reflection, "How much money would it take for me to do what they do ?") in knicker drawers and the microwave before calling in the authorities. But the crime wouldn't be very interesting if this was about being reasonable. This is about the mounting distrust, jealousy, paranoia, fear and increasingly extreme, shocking, grotesque deeds that spring out of unreasonable greed.

Flattering the viewer, the film takes for granted that contemporary audiences are one step ahead of the "dot every i" expositions and TV-mentality dialogues that plague too many British productions. Instead the principals have near-telepathic shorthand discussions, like chums do. They contemplate the cash.
David: "No." Juliet: "It'sunfeasible." David: "You mean immoral." Juliet: "I know what I mean."
And so do we. Initially their only crime is inertia, but trust the crafty tabloid reporter (Alex's mind perfectly revealed by his succinct phone conversation at work: " Y'see, what I need here is 'PC Plod Saves Harry The Hamster From House Of Horror', y'know? ... Y'see no pets, no human angle.") to devise an unnecessarily complicated and gruesome scheme to keep the money. Hugo is mutilated beyond identification — by the short straw-drawing David — with the bulk of his bits left in a pit Alex is too lazy to dig deep.

Up to this point the film is firmly black comedy with wisecracks like Alex's protest to the suddenly squeamish Juliet, "But Juliet, you're a doctor! You kill people every day!" (a line Hodge must have particularly enjoyed writing, since he is actually a doctor).
It develops into something more chilling, more relentlessly unnerving — and certain to involve an apportioning of doom — when it turns on boring, diligent David being the only one of the three with any sense of moral dilemma, guilt or possible consequences. So he's the one who has to go spectacularly crazy. Alex and Juliet would happily slop champagne and buy toys for the rest of their lives without a twinge, but for the fatefully-charged arrival of the professional criminals (one of whom is Peter Mullan).

Insofar as it is needed we can take for granted their history from the grisly torture trail they take to the haven turned hell of a flat. The macabre disintegration that results is clever, cautionary and stimulating, even provoking, and as unreasonable as life,

Chilling Brit rollercoaster-ride of a crime thriller