Shallow Grave (1994)


*. This is a movie that, if you were watching a lot of movies in the ’90s, you probably saw many times. Perhaps not this movie specifically, but one much like it. It was Danny Boyle’s first film and it operated as a bit of a calling card.
*. It was cheap, it was fast, it was violent, it had a lot of cool-looking young people in it, it had smart(ass), funny dialogue, It had a mix soundtrack that made ironic use of vintage pop songs, it had a relatively intricate plot. It was, according to legend that’s since grown up around it, not a “conventional” British film of the time, the convention being that of “drab British realism” (Danny Boyle). But did it avoid this by becoming an even more conventional American neo-noir? Tarantino and the Coen brothers go to Scotland (Boyle cites Blood Simple and Goodfellas as films he “nicked” from)? I think so.
*. Does this matter? Or that the plot is as ancient as the hills: the discovery of a treasure leading to a falling out among friends?


*. That old war horse of a plot doesn’t even receive a very inspired re-working here. There are few unexpected twists, and much is left unexplained. Who is Hugo? What is his relation to the two gangsters? How did the two gangsters track Hugo to the apartment? What is the nature of Juliet’s relationship to Alex and David? Are they, were they, lovers? All three seem curiously asexual. Sometimes they come across as “young fogies” in Christopher Eccleston’s phrase, prematurely post-sexual. At other times they don’t seem grown-up enough. When Alex gets done up in drag and rolls around on the floor with Juliet there isn’t a hint of anything naughty about it. They’re just a pair of silly kids. And up until the end David might still be a virgin, what with his peeping down on Juliet in bed and writhing in frustration. Juliet herself seems to be the only one with any sexual experience or sex life, and in indirect ways she appears to use this to dominate Alex and Dave, who are really just a pair of twits when it comes to such things.
*. Just sticking with the juvenility of the three for a second, I think this is reinforced by the bright but crude colour scheme in the flat, which makes it look like they’re living in a giant dollhouse.
*. The script also seems inattentive, or unconcerned, with detail. How, for example, does Hugo die? You’ll usually see it described in plot synopses as a drug overdose, but I don’t know on what evidence. Alex finds drug paraphernalia in the room, but it’s tucked away in a drawer (he then throws it on the bed, which is where we later see it). When Alex wonders aloud about cause of death, and asks Juliet what she thinks, she never replies beyond saying “The guy’s dead. What more do you need?”


*. Finally, there isn’t any resolution. Is Alex going to get away with it? Will the money be found? Will he go to jail? And what’s going to happen to Juliet?
*. I’m not saying all, or any, of this had to be explained. A bit of mystery and ambiguity are fine. But when you leave this much out it gives the impression of a script that just wasn’t thought through very well. I am not at all comfortable with the conclusion of Philip Kemp’s Criterion essay: “The sleek, pared-down narrative dispenses with superfluous exposition. We never learn whether there was a previous fourth resident of the apartment and, if so, what became of him or her. Equally, it’s not explained how the two heavies trace Hugo to the apartment. Such details matter little, if at all.” Maybe they don’t matter to Kemp. And I think it’s fair to say they wouldn’t have mattered to Hitchcock. But they matter to me, for the reason I’ve given: they give the impression that nobody even bothered thinking about them. It’s a lazy, sloppy job of writing. I don’t think any of this can be written off as doing away with “superfluous exposition.” I know this is a bit of a fixation of mine, but it seems to me that if we’re going to praise a well-made plot and a story that comes together perfectly then we should also be prepared to criticize one that doesn’t even try.
*. Shouldn’t an accountant have been able to come up with a better idea for what to do with a suitcase full of money than to hide it in a water tank (an expedient that Boyle laughingly dismisses as “film nonsense”)? And yet not only is the money not divvied up, the friends don’t even have any discussions over what they plan to do with it. Isn’t that strange? Wouldn’t it be their main if not sole topic of conversation?


*. My first thought on seeing the flat was that it was impossibly large. Apparently my disbelief was registered by others, as both Danny Boyle (on the DVD commentary) and Ewan McGregor (in an interview) took pains to point out that such vast flats are common in Edinburgh. I wouldn’t know, but I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.
*. People who don’t like this movie are unanimous in their dislike of the three main characters. This is an interesting point in general. Must a movie have a hero? Can we only like movies that are about people we like?
*. The answer to both questions is No. But.
*. But we should feel as though there’s a point to spending the entire film in such close proximity to three such characters. Roger Ebert found the leads “Not evil – that would be fine, in material like this – but simply obnoxious in a boring way. To some degree we need to identify with their fear of discovery, and we do not.”
*. Ebert makes a couple of good points. First that the three leads aren’t interesting villains but just dull and annoying. Second that the plot never builds any suspense because we don’t care enough about Alex, David or Juliet to want to see them either get caught or get away with it.
*. Another problem with the characters is that their selfish natures undercuts any point that the movie may be making about friendship generally. I never had the sense that they were actually friends. Indeed it’s hard to figure out why the hell they’re living with each other in the first place, aside from the possibility that nobody else would want to. They have fun insulting people who are interested in renting a room with them, but I’m not sure any of their prospective tenants would actually want to live with them if they knew them any better. One wonders if their selfish arrogance is the reason they have no friends (nobody ever stops by and we never see them going out with anyone else), or a way of trying to cheer themselves up in their lonely misery.
*. Even the political point isn’t worth making. Boyle comments that the three contemptible yuppies are reflective of Major’s Britain, but it’s hardly news that such types are despicable. Yes, we recognize them and hate them, but we don’t care about them.
*. There is one point about the three heels that I found personally interesting. If you look at the three professions — a doctor, an accountant, and a tabloid journalist — which of the three would you assume was the coldest, cruelest, and most cynical? Well, in this case it’s the doctor. I suppose that should have struck me as being in some way ironic, but instead I found myself nodding my head and thinking “Yes, that’s about right.” Which is a bit troubling.


*. I do like the police investigators with their air of weary, even dreamy professionalism, but they’re a familiar comic element and at the end of the day there’s really not very much of them. That I wanted to spend more time with them and less with the flatmates is another knock against the film.


*. Was this how people dressed in Scotland in the ’90s? David’s adoption of David Cronenberg glasses seems a decade behind the times. And I really can’t figure out Alex’s sweatpants-tucked-into-gym socks look. For a second I thought he was wearing leg warmers.
*. Overrated. It’s probably best known now for being Danny Boyle’s debut, but Boyle hasn’t, as of this writing, gone on to make a great movie but only two or three decent ones. In most respects I find it unoriginal, uninteresting, and hard to like.


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