Criterion: Shallow Grave (***) isn't deep enough

Shallow Grave – 1994

Director Danny Boyle
Screenplay John Hodge
Starring Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Ken Stott, Keith Allen

My daughter is going through an Ewan McGregor phase, so I was pleasantly surprised when she started watching this yesterday and the Criterion logo crept across the screen. I have never been a huge fan of Danny Boyle, so it never was a priority. I have owned Trainspotting for years. Not real keen on watching all of that hedonism, even though Emily has it and it’s second part on her list. This is Ewan’s first big notice, as well Hodge’s and Boyle’s first film, and that’s the major impression one gets having watched.

Shallow Grave is the story of three flatmates looking for someone to move into their extra bedroom. They interview several new prospects, each more cruelly than the previous. They finally offer the room to Hugo (Allen). Very shortly after, the three discover their new roommate dead of an overdose. They also discover a suitcase full of cash.

Alex (McGregor), a journalist, is the first one to recommend that they dump the body after cutting the hands and feet off and break out the teeth. Juliet (Fox), a doctor, agrees first. It takes accountant David (Eccleston) the drawing of straws to finally agree. Give you one guess who gets the short straw.

There is not much going on in Shallow Grave that isn’t telegraphed well in advance. This is more of a training wheels film than something that breaks ground creatively. Still, there are some pleasant moments.

All three of the leads have a magnetic appeal. It’s a surprise that Fox didn’t become a major star outside of her native New Zealand / Australia. To see her navigate the pensive relationship she has with David while flirting with Alex is an intriguing subplot.

McGregor is completely at ease in front of Boyle’s camera. His presence as instigator helps move the story forward. It’s easy to see how he became such a major presence in cinema over such a long period.

Eccleston is creepy, even in a protagonist’s role. It may be hindsight providing some insight, but his trajectory is clear from the first moment we see him. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t do a good job, but perhaps they could have switched McGregor and Eccleston’s roles to see how that might have slowed the predictable nature of the story.

There’s nothing wrong with the film, other than it feels like an exercise over familiar ground. Boyle is able to shoot some interesting perspectives repeatedly (and some, like the yellow bag in water, too often). There is nothing here that shouts out how incredibly skilled Boyle would become. Someone wiser than I saw this potential.

From an historical perspective, perhaps one can understand this being a Criterion release. I know some of this is dependent on what they can get the rights to overall. As a film, this one is kind of forgettable, if technically proficient. It’s a good first attempt.
(*** out of *****)

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