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Movie thrillers got a boost in the early 1990s, as enterprising filmmakers took the path pioneered by the Coen Brothers' earlier hit Blood simple. Once the concept of "film noir" finally seeped down to the level of mainstream culture, critics and the public alike were realizing that a number of "darker" murder mysteries of the 1980s like Body Heat and The Grifters could be called "neo noir": modern pictures that retained some of the characteristics of the classic style of the 1940s and '50s. Skilled practitioners like Stephen Frears were already attuned to the style when Quentin Tarantino cornered the market in neo-noir for the genre-savvy movie audience.
Over in Scotland, TV director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald made a splash with 1994's Shallow Grave, a cleverly stylized and packaged murder thriller definitely modeled after the Coen Bros.' original hit. The movie was an almost instant success, putting Danny Boyle on the path to the directing mainstream. The show also gave a strong boost to its trio of stars, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor.
Hodge's story supposes that three working professionals need a fourth roommate for their Edinburgh apartment. Juliet (Kerry Fox) is a doctor, Alex (Ewan McGregor) a reporter for a tabloid and David (Christopher Eccleston) an accountant. The trio isn't particularly friendly, as they crueally subject their interviewees to their sardonic sense of humor. But they soon choose an acceptable fellow to take the extra room. The perfect candidate Hugo (Keith Allen) dies from a heroin overdose on the very night he moves in. What's more, the trio discovers that his suitcase is packed with money. Juliet, David and Alex mull over this opportunity for more than a day before taking the risk, and keeping the money. It's the old story: fear, suspicion and paranoia soon take a toll. Juliet and Alex go on a foolish spending spree while David quietly freaks out. Convinced that a conspiracy is afoot, he stops talking to his roommates and hides in the attic where 'nobody can get at him.' Alex and Juliet try to convince David that everything is fine --- just as Hugo's murderous associates succeed in tracing the suitcase with the money.
Not unlike Quentin Tarantino, the makers of Shallow Grave keep their show aloft with stylish visuals and sharp, flashy characterizations. Juliet, Alex and David's insular relationship is a too-hip-for-you private club, the kind in which friends feed off each other's desire to be ultra-clever. The trio finishes each other's sentences and laughs at all the right moments. Individuals outside their inner circle are fair game for whatever verbal abuse they care to dish out. The main instigator of group foolishness is the sharp-tongued Alex, while Juliet draws a personal satisfaction knowing that her male friends quietly lust after her. The more serious David is forever rushing to his boring accountancy job in a foul mood. We don't really like this trio. It reminds us of people we've met, that we've perhaps consciously decided not to judge.
Most of the action is restricted to the one apartment. A large and attractive space, it is exploited very well by Danny Boyle's camera. The visuals are less mannered than those of Tarantino or the Coens, yet there is no lack of odd camera angles. The trio's midnight excursions to ditch various corpses are a foggy replay of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher, with added details of gruesome dismemberment. David's retreat to the attic crawlspace seems a weird re-run of Psycho. He knocks holes all over the ceiling through which he can observe his roommates, creating a forest of light beams that pierce the attic gloom. It's an instant expressionist effect.
Shallow Grave delivers the expected violent confrontations and derives more than a few thriller situations from older models. Keeping track of the cash stashed in the suitcase is an issue. When Alex is assigned to report on the police investigation of the graves found in the woods, he finds himself retracing the reluctant steps of Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window.
If the point is to push English movies beyond the years of Merchant-Ivory gentility, Shallow Grave accomplishes its mission. These young adults are certainly not innocents. They do not for a moment concern themselves with moral issues; the intended message may be that their value system has been eroded by the new worship of money. In the U.K. post-Margaret Thatcher, the need for moral balance is just another sentiment to be mocked. The show is suspenseful and frequently funny: the one thing we know for certain is that the fade-out will be accompanied by a dead body or two... or maybe four.
It's easy to see why Shallow Grave's actors did well. Christopher Eccleston's unhinged accountant is just as meticulous about bashing skulls and chopping up bodies as he is making his books balance. Kerry Fox's young doctor joins in the camaraderie but always keeps something essential to herself. And Ewan McGregor's smart-talking joker shows such a knack for recklessness and antisocial behavior, we feel certain that he's compensating for some perceived inner lack. Shallow Grave may be an almost generic stash-the-cash crime story, but its depth of characterization puts it ahead of most of its competition.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Shallow Grave is a perfect encoding of this suspense hit from 1994. With the help of the filmmakers Criterion includes plenty of first-person extras. One feature-length commentary pairs John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald, while a second allows director Boyle free reign. This first feature was the beginning of a wave of hits for Danny Boyle: Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. An interview featurette regroups the three stars to recap the production and filming seventeen years after the fact. Also present are a BBC making-of show produced during the filming and a video diary from 1992's Edinburgh film festival, showing the producers in search of financing to get Shallow Grave on its feet. A trailer is included as well as a teaser for Trainspotting; a folding insert contains an essay by Philip Kemp.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shallow Grave Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.