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Shallow Grave

Movie Information

In Brief: Danny Boyle's debut film is nearly 20 years old (hard to imagine), but feels as if it came out last week. It's the wicked -- and wickedly funny — tale of what happens when three terribly trendy Glaswegian flatmates discover their new tenant is dead and has left behind a suitcase full of money. Should they notify the police or dispose of the body and keep the cash? They choose the latter course — calling down the wrath of the mobsters to whom the loot belongs, and feeding their own paranoia and greed in the bargain.
Genre: Dark Comedy Thriller
Director: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ken Stott, Keith Allen
Rated: R

With Danny Boyle’s new film, Trance, opening on April 12, the Asheville Film Society is taking another look at his first film. Boyle’s Shallow Grave(1994) is quite possibly the most audacious feature-film debut outside of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. And although Shallow Grave it was eclipsed in fame by his follow-up film, Trainspotting (1996), I’m not sure that this isn’t the stronger film. As a calling card to the film world that a bold new filmmaker had arrived on the scene, Shallow Grave is brilliant — only a little short of a masterpiece. Every scene, every move and nearly every shot is calculated for maximum impact — the kind of impact that draws attention to the filmmaker’s style. That’s either a plus or a minus depending on your mindset. Some people find this sort of thing distracting and showy — and it’s certainly showy — but Boyle manages the even more impressive feat of harnessing the style to make the film’s story compelling. He may be showing off so that you’re always conscious of his presence, but he also keeps you involved in the story — thanks in no small part to John Hodge’s smart screenplay. Plus, it’s a film that perfectly fits its too-smart-for-their-own-good, style-over-substance characters. The film’s three main characters — played by Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston — are so trendy and hip that they’re more shallow than the titular grave. The story follows what happens when their new flatmate turns up dead in his room — leaving behind a suitcase full of money. It doesn’t take long for the three to succumb to the temptation of disposing of the body and keeping the money for themselves — not reckoning on their own weaknesses or the fact that the money belongs to vengeful gangsters who want it back. And that results in one of the most memorable thrillers you’re likely to encounter.

While it’s Trainspotting that is generally considered as having a great affinity with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), the aura of that film creeps in around the edges of Shallow Grave as well. I do not, for example, think that Ewan McGregor’s character is named Alex for no reason. There are definite similarities between the two sociopaths, though Clockwork‘s Alex is certainly the more openly violent. Similarly, the final image of Grave‘s Alex bears more than a passing resemblance to the one in Clockwork. That said, this new Alex is more able to function in society and considerably more of an enigma. Everything about him is slippery — including his sexuality (and I don’t just mean the drag scene since Boyle often frames McGregor’s face where he’s nearly interchangeable with Kerry Fox). Why he behaves as he does is also hard to pin down. Many of his actions are clearly in the nature of a man compensating for something — especially his need to humiliate others and, in particular, the character named Cameron (Colin McCredie) — but what he’s compensating for remains a mystery. (The film is an equally good calling card for McGregor.)

For an earlier take on the film go to:

The Asheville Film Society will screen Shallow Grave Tuesday, April 9 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Shallow Grave

  1. Xanadon't

    Wasn’t too long ago that I last watched this, but now I’m ready to see it again.

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