“If you can’t trust your friends, well what then?”
Danny Boyle is best known today for shooting award-winning, feature-length Nike commercials, but he began his film career with this award-winning, feature-length techno video about three assholes in Edinburgh: Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor, David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant, and Alex (Ewan McGregor in his first substantive film role), a tabloid journalist. The film opens with a jittery montage scored to house music in which the assholes torment a series of prospective flatmates who have come to inquire about a room for rent in their upscale downtown apartment.
Eventually they find someone who seems to be enough of an asshole to be worthy of admission to their asshole circle. This new asshole moves in and promptly dies, most likely of a drug overdose, leaving behind a giant suitcase full of money. Naturally, the three assholes who find him lying buck naked on his bed decide the most sensible course of action would be to chop off his hands and feet, rip out his teeth, bash his face to a pulp, bury him in a shallow grave, and keep the money.
It’s hard to believe anything could go wrong with a foolproof plan like that, but problems mount quickly, first in the form of a pair of vengeful mobsters who are willing to torture and kill in order to find that suitcase full of money. But if “Shallow Grave” offers any surprise it’s that bloodthirsty sociopaths have nothing on this trio of young urban professionals (finally, I found a good synonym for “asshole”) whose vileness is all-consuming. With or without mobster threats, paranoia takes hold of the group, and the former friends (not that they’re capable of such an emotional attachment) go from celebrating their fortunes to jabbing steak knives through each other in short (but not short enough) order.
Even in 1994, Danny Boyle had the uncanny ability to lurch his camera all over the place yet still somehow compose one cloyingly static frame after another. Instead of evoking the claustrophobia of a film set mostly in an apartment, Boyle and cameraman Brian Tufano craft a movie that cuts lazily among three idle people intent on nothing beyond showing how cool they are. They are not characters as much as attitudes, posers with nothing interesting to say or do even when they’re sawing off feet and planting claw hammers in the back of people’s skulls.
It’s one thing to create thoroughly unlikeable characters (hell, it works for “Gone With the Wind”), but another to make them all such tedious pricks. If there’s any development at all, it’s in the way that the weedy David goes from the group’s worry-wart (“conscience” would be an exaggeration) to the alpha male, while Alex, the most obnoxious and hyper-aggressive of the assholes, crumbles under the first crowbar to the shin and starts crying for mommy. Juliet (who must have gotten her degree at Hollywood Upstairs Medical College) tries to play these wankers against each other with her feminine wiles (by which I mean boobs), but she’s so unconvincing that her modest and intermittent success is only attributable to the fact that the boys, indeed, total wankers. At least David has aesthetic sensibilities. Once he locks himself in the attic with the money, he drills a bunch of holes in the floor because, well, because it gives us a chance to see a really cool shot with dozens of beams of light stabbing through the darkness.
The whole film is an absurdly self-conscious effort to be clever and edgy, but never more so than in the implausible and outright laughable Grand Guignol finale in which we see, in no uncertain terms, just what animals these pretty people really are. Of course, we already knew what they were like from the first sequence in the movie, but back then we were in a better mood because we hadn’t just spent an hour and a half trapped with a boring, dimwitted bunch of assholes.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1aspect ratio. The colors are quite vibrant in this 1080p transfer with rich reds (and plenty of them) as well as inky blacks. Image detail is strong, as always from Criterion, and there’s no damage evident, though that’s not surprising for a relatively recent film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track has quite a bit of depth to it, preserving the patter of footsteps and the crunching of bone in perfect balance. The film’s eclectic and irritating soundtrack is also treated well. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied by two audio commentary tracks, a 2009 track by Danny Boyle (originally included on the UK Blu-ray) and a new (Feb 2012) track with screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald.
“Digging Your Own Grave” is a 1994 making-of feature (30 min., directed by the great Kevin Macdonald) and a “Video Diary” (9 min.) is also included, showing Andrew and Kevin Macdonald shopping the film at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival. The disc also includes interviews (29 min.) with the three lead cast members. There is also a Trailer for the movies and a teaser for what was then Boyle’s next project, “Trainspotting” (1996).
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Philip Kemp.
I’m not surprised that in my youth I thought “Shallow Grave” (1994) was a pretty cool movie. What surprises me now is that the adults at the time actually gave this ridiculous movie a pass. This one gets filed right next to “Armageddon” and “Tiny Furniture” on the “Why, Criterion, Why?” shelf. But, hey, it won a BAFTA and launched an Oscar-winning director’s career, so there’s that.