Notable as the debut feature film of Danny Boyle and the movie that put both him and Ewan McGregor into the moviegoing consciousness, Shallow Grave (1994) is also a textbook for what to do with a debut feature. Regardless of how one feels about the film—in some ways, the movie is as shallow as the grave of the title—there’s no denying that it’s absolutely brilliant as a cinematic calling card. The script is bitterly funny and hip. The story line is cleverly constructed. The camerawork and editing are stylish and flashy. And Boyle demonstrates his sense of being both hip and knowledgeable with a soundtrack that includes songs by Leftfield (exponents of then-big “progressive house music”) and a jazzy Nina Simone cover of Eddie Cantor’s 1930s hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” (Andy Williams singing “Happy Heart” shows Boyle is also conscious of kitsch.) It’s brilliant in that the viewer will not soon forget the experience.
The story itself is surprisingly lacking in the kind of humanity that permeates Boyle’s other work. But it’s fascinating for that very fact, because it shows off his innate sense of style with little thematic distraction. It’s a showcase work. The premise has three not very likable—but oh-so-hip—Glaswegian flatmates (McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston) who, after abusing a variety of prospects for a fourth tenant, accept a rather creepy gent. The gent promptly expires, leaving behind a large bag of money. Not surprisingly, the money isn’t exactly legal. Equally unsurprising, greed gets the better of the three, leading to danger, illegal activities (including murder), duplicity and even madness. Is it inspired by the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984)? Almost certainly, but Shallow Grave has a style and a vibe all its own.