Many moons ago I worked at a video store where they showed a loop of preview movies over and over when I was there, and while I vaguely remember Shallow Grave being on the loop, I gave it little attention at the job. Many people may be in a similar position where they are subjected to a compact yet incessant occupation of their senses whether it comes to music or movie trailers, and it becomes something where someone can tend to tune them out. However, coming back to revisit some of those things can prove to bear some fruit, and such is the case with this film.
John Hodge (Trainspotting) wrote the story for the film that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) directed in his feature film debut. The story focuses on three roommates, starting with the exuberant Alex, a Scottish journalist played by Ewan McGregor (Beginners). Along with Alex is Juliet (Kerry Fox, An Angel At My Table), who works as a doctor, and David (Christopher Eccelston, 28 Days Later), who is an accountant. The trio gets along greatly and is entertaining offers for a roommate for their shared flat. They manage to bring in a reserved, slightly older gentleman who one day mysteriously dies. They are fully prepared to call for an ambulance, but they hold off calling anyone because Alex, upon a search in the room to assuage his curiosity, finds a suitcase full of money. The group decide their roommate's body must be disposed of on their own after a couple of days of deliberation, and wind up cutting off his hands, feet and head, bury his body in a wooded area and dispose of his car and belongings as well. The act of getting rid of the body and subsequent guilt impacts David the most, to the point where he barricades himself in the attic with the money after watching Juliet and Alex's self-perceived plot against him. As the film goes on, we see their friendship unravel and wonder who actually walks away with the money, even with the investigation on the disappearance getting closer to their home.
There may have been a slew of films before or since that have focused on the impact of money within a relationship between friends, but few have done so with as much assurance in the performers and story that Boyle does, combined with an already well-polished set of skills. Using a set of tight, slowly rotating shots on David with an occasional moment of flashback that shows the disposal occurring, David's slow descent into madness is told simply and effectively, combined with a good performance by Eccleston. In his starring debut, McGregor's turn is one ripe with humor and an almost boyish innocence even as things within the flat become pear-shaped. With that innocence he does start to feel whether he is in trouble from David's acts, even toying with the possibility of creating a will during the process. While going onto popularity in Trainspotting, one can see the roots take hold in this film.
While Alex tends to not fully grasp the gravity of the situation until later in the movie, one who seems to have a grasp on it is Juliet. Fox does a great job of listening to what Alex and David are going through individually, and her motivations are kept to herself until near the end of the film, even though the viewer tends to know what she might wind up doing. You may chalk it up to a weaker role in the story, but I think Hodge tends to balance the three out well and Fox performs admirably with it to the end.
If there is one thing to take away from Shallow Grave is that it does not necessarily reinvent the wheel, but it does make it much better ride when you have a decent story, promising direction and capable performances. It may not have been a film that I particularly enjoyed upon its release, but as the years have gone on, seeing this one now makes me wonder why I didn't run into the wall with my head sooner for not experiencing it.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Criterion presents Shallow Grave in an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 high-definition widescreen transfer that looks excellent. Image detail in the foreground looks good (you can almost spot the textures on Alex's scab!) along with in the background of some scenes, such as paint layers on walls and doors and fabrics. Additionally, colors are reproduced accurately and flesh tones appear natural and do not possess and red or orange push to them. It is interesting to see how the lighting tends to change as the roommates turn on one another, resorting to darker, less lit areas, but those are conveyed well, with black levels that look consistent. This is another fine looking disc from Criterion.
The film's original two-channel surround soundtrack has been remastered and is on display on the Criterion disc. You are not going to get many epiphanies over this track, with some nineties club music thumping in the early stages of the film (with scarce subwoofer engagement, if any at all), but the majority of the story is dialogue driven and it sounds clear and free of chirps or hissing noises. Directional effects and channel panning are fairly null and void also, but we are talking about a fancy two-channel track after all. No complaints or worries here.
Criterion has two commentaries for Shallow Grave, one old and one new, but both are decent. The old one from Boyle (off the 2009 UK release) is not too shabby and he possesses quite a bit of production recall and gets into some shot and production breakdown. He touches on which member of the cast was the 'gravy train' to secure financing for the film, along with some intent in the scenes as well. It is an active track and is solid. The second track is with Hodge and Andrew MacDonald, producer for the film. Overall it is slightly less active but good nonetheless, with the original intent from MacDonald when it came to making the film and how this project seemed to tie in with Trainspotting. They also talk about the pressure to finish the film and some modest difficulties in financing. Between both tracks the main creative forces seem to cover a lot of the bases here, but as always with Criterion, that's hardly the case.
Moving on, "Digging Your Own Grave" (29:48) is a documentary on the making of the film from Kevin MacDonald, who won an Oscar for the 1999 documentary One Day In September, but is also the brother of Andrew. In this piece, we see a mix of fly on the wall footage along with interviews, and MacDonald covers various aspects of the film from casting to some of the financial tensions the production seemed to flirt with. Dailies are watched and sets are built, and we see much of what occurs on set, with the piece ultimately concluding with the film's appearance at Cannes and the crowd reaction immediately afterwards. It is a fairly decent piece. Along with this is a video diary (8:58) at the 1992 Edinburgh Film Festival and the brothers MacDonald speak with a variety of the festival's guests, including Samuel Fuller, as they discuss what they need to do to get the film made, along with speaking to Sean Connery via phone call to wonder if he would return to Scotland to make a film. Surreal stuff to be sure. New interviews with McGregor, Fox and Eccleston (28:55) include the trio's thoughts on the film at the time, along with their characters and various challenges and anecdotes on things that happened on set, and is a fond look back at the film for all. The trailer (2:05) and a teaser for Trainspotting (1:14) which appeared in front of the Shallow Grave videotape round the disc out.
Shallow Grave is an admirable first film by a guy who has evolved into one of the better filmmakers in cinema these days, even if the base for the story is one that has been seen before. Technically the disc is excellent per the usual Criterion standards, and from an extras perspective it is full of the usual entertaining mix of information and entertainment, and for those who like the film, this is a strong addition to your collection. For those unfamiliar with it, at the very least it is something that you should watch.