Review: Shallow Grave

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Ecclestone
Released: 1995 / Genre: Suspense/Thriller / Country: UK / IMDB
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Also check out: Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours

Shallow Grave, British director Danny Boyle’s debut feature film, is about the disintegration of friendship under the strain of greed. It’s also a bleak social study of three bright but blinded intellectuals who’ve allowed callous opportunism defeat any moral grounding. It’s certainly a daring, hard-edged low-budget thriller that paints a dark, almost dangerous view, of the young, middle-class characters it portrays. But it’s also a very astute investigation of the primal forces that drive human beings. Indeed, the three main characters display the primitive form of Freud’s theory of personality development when they allow their moral judgment to be governed by the pleasure of having lots and lots of money.

shallow grave, film, danny boyle, ewan mcgregor, kerry fox, christopher ecclestone,

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Shallow Grave concerns the lives of three friends who live in the same flat, David (Christopher Ecclestone), Kelly (Juliet Miller), and Alex (Ewan McGregor). When they advertise for a new flatmate, the mysterious Hugo arrives and shuts himself in his room. When they try to tempt Hugo out of his slumber they find him lying on his bed dead. Instead of calling the police they search his belongings finding a large suitcase full of money. Putting all decency aside, they chop up the body, mash up his teeth, bury him in a secluded wood, and throw his car over a cliff. Of course, nothing is easy. David, whose job it was to do the chopping of limbs and smashing of jaws, begins to succumb to the madness of the situation as the reality of what he did takes its toll. Meanwhile, Hugo obviously didn’t come by the money through any sort of legitimate way, and some of his old ‘friends’ are closing in on the loot.

You can see where the buoyancy of youth and lack of big-budget constraints helped director Boyle create this very tightly-paced thriller. He shows some lovely directorial flourishes, whether it’s in the way he moves his camera around the flat, or how he lights the burial scenes, you know you are watching a man who is passionate about his film. That passion is definitely something that comes off the screen, with Boyle having the smug-confidence to show off the film’s concluding twist, not with words, but with a sweeping track beneath the floorboards. You’ve also got to give him credit for presenting us with such obnoxious characters; it’s a definite trait of a director either free of studio shackles or with the determination to demand he do it his own way. He doesn’t take the obvious route of presenting us with people we must care about to feel any emotion in their story, he simply shows us a decision they make which questions any decent fundamental moral standing. In doing this, the audience is drawn into the film through how their own ideals reflect the situation. In other words, it leads back to that age-old tale of finding a twenty pound note and asking yourself: do you keep it, or hand it into the police. In this case the stakes are intensified but the underlying issue remains the same. The beauty of the film is its ability to question the audience’s values by suggesting that everyone, for at least one second, considers taking the money and hiding the body.

It works so well because as the characters pretensions begin to collapse, they become, dare I even say it, endearing. It’s obviously a very dark appeal they possess but as the disdain for their peers starts to crack, and the friendship becomes detracted, there’s a very realistically identifiable paranoia that is easy to relate to given the circumstances. As Alex starts to write his ‘facts that should be known in case of my untimely death’, Kelly’s probable escape to Rio, and David’s continuing internal destruction, we see a fabulous dynamic between these people who were at the beginning of the film over-critical, over-indulgent, and most certainly over-confident. It’s a rather cynical appreciation of the film as the audience feeds off these undesirable’s murky fall from grace, as they get what they deserve. In effect, it’s like watching the school bully get stoned by all the little kids who’ve had their dinner money stolen from them. By presenting us with characters that were difficult to like at the beginning of the film, we find a more powerful resonance from their disintegration as things begin to go wrong.

shallow grave, film, danny boyle, ewan mcgregor, kerry fox, christopher ecclestone,

The film isn’t perfect however (Boyle would go on to make a better film with Trainspotting two years later), largely because some liberties are taken to keep the pace up. Kelly, Alex, and David make the decision to chop up the body too quickly (Charles Manson might make the decision so quickly but not these intelligent, professional people with everything to lose) which is certainly an indication of Boyle’s intention to get to the second part of the story more quickly. It works in the sense that the tension can be cranked up ten minutes earlier, but perhaps a greater deal of development in this area would have helped. Yet, you can’t take much away from Boyle, his cast, or his production crew (who create a great main location in the flat), as it’s a very mature debut film with excellent central performances.

Review by Daniel Stephens

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Aiden R. Reply

    Dude, you are the man. Rarely do I ever come across folks who have seen this, and I am a huge fan. Been a good four or five years since the last time I saw it, but I remember I saw it twice back-to-back the first time I saw it. Great stuff. Not up to Trainspotting snuff like you said, but still a wildly underappreciated horror movie.

  2. Dan Reply

    Absolutely. I think the film is a grower. Like you said – watching it back-to-back – it gets better when you see it again. That’s the mark of a great movie I think. Terrific performances, great direction from Boyle, and a really good story.

  3. Rodney Reply

    I still think, alongside Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, this is Boyle’s best work. The entire cast a sport on, the story is taut and terrifying, and the camerawork is sublime. A near perfect dramatic thriller.

  4. Fitz Reply

    Thank you so much! This has been in the back of my mind recently, but I didn’t remember the title until now.

  5. Dan Reply

    @Rodney: Totally agree. Terrific film. Boyle certainly displayed his talent with Shallow Grave and I don’t think he’s bettered the film too many times since.

    @Fitz: It’s great when that happens! 🙂

  6. CS Reply

    This is still my favourite of all of Boyles films. Why Kerry Fox did not become a bigger name after this is beyond me? I can see your point about them deciding to cut the body up rather quickly, but I was willing to look past it.

  7. Dan Reply

    @CS: Although I made the point about the body, it’s easy to look past that when the rest of the film is so good. Boyle has a way with suspense and I don’t think he’s matched the level of tension found in Shallow Grave since.

  8. M. Hufstader Reply

    In the line of most of the above comments–props to reviewing this movie. I definitely loved it the first time I saw it. And I definitely agree with the “school bully getting stoned” comment–I couldn’t have put it better myself. Right on.

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