While some crime films offer audiences the vicarious pleasure of seeing characters get away with a wildly implausible caper, the film noir usually provides the opposite comfort: watching characters who are doomed to face a reprisal of some kind for their misdeeds. And make no mistake, the ironically unhappy endings that many noirs are known for usually do offer a kind of comfort, as noirs implicatively tell audiences that they’re better off living conventional lives that are mostly devoid of risk-taking. A traditional noir hero begins a film as an audience surrogate and ends as a self-sacrificial testament to the reassuring pleasures of conformity.
Shallow Grave has often been described as “nasty,” and that’s because it doesn’t even offer the strange pleasure of a misguided antihero dying for the implied sake of maintaining a greater societal balance. Shallow Grave is one of those films—like The Last Seduction, which was released around the same time—that’s been pared of every bit of the noir’s characteristic romanticism and self-pity. The characters are ghoulish ciphers entirely incapable of extending empathy or mercy, and the stolen money they find is one of probably a hundred incitements that would’ve compelled them to shed all civil pretenses to reveal themselves as the savages they always were.
The nihilism that Shallow Grave indulges has always struck me as representing a pose that’s every bit as false and aggrandizing as the story of the decent but misguided lowlife who can’t catch a break. It’s awfully easy to reduce every character to a type in an effort to proclaim life’s inherent phoniness, to assert that everyone and anyone is one random incident away from sticking kitchen knives in one another, but as philosophies go it’s reductive and more than a little dull.
Shallow Grave is the film debut of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and screenwriter John Hodge, and it’s a smooth, confident piece of work. Boyle keeps you uncertain and jacked up with wild and wooly camera movements that are often accompanied by club music. The loft that serves as the film’s chief setting is open and visually textured: Every wall looks like the cover of a good album, which reflects the superficial mindsets of its occupants while, more importantly, tickling your eye. The script is sleek and no-nonsense, offering not even a bit of irrelevant information (and Hodge, compellingly, even omits a number of plot details that many filmmakers would find pertinent to provide). The performances are distinctive and lively.
Yet, Shallow Grave is clearly one of those debuts that have primarily been created to prove the talent of those who made it. The film ably succeeds on those grounds, but otherwise it’s irritatingly pointless. Boyle and Hodge are clever fellows, and they shrewdly imply that their film’s cynicism is a reflection of post-Thatcher British discontent (a subtext some critics were more than happy to run away with), but Shallow Grave is really an old-fashioned fatalistic tale of greed’s perversion that’s been gussied up with art-film tricks.
Boyle directs in a showy, clinical style that’s meant to encourage us to watch the three leads, played by Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor, as if they were insects in a glass case—an approach that only emphasizes the fact that the film ultimately doesn’t make much sense of its character interactions. It’s clear early on that the three smart young adults seen here are generally successful and self-satisfied as well as isolated and miserable (there’s a running joke about a character’s inability to answer the phone). It’s also clear that the two men are both sexually infatuated with the woman, and that the woman understands, enjoys, and exploits this, but Boyle and Hodge aren’t able to make much sense of the upheavals that their procuring of the ill-gotten money causes, and so the killing and bed-hopping that ensues feels rooted more in narrative necessity than an understanding of character behavior.
This style-for-style’s sake tendency has continued to define Boyle’s largely overrated career. With the occasional exception (Trainspotting), I’ve never really believed that Boyle was much more than a Tony Scott with indie cachet, and there are times (Slumdog Millionaire) when his indifference to his human subjects is actively offensive. Shallow Grave is a shrewd calling card made by ambitious young men, and it’s admirable on those terms, but it’s kid’s stuff compared to similarly themed films, like A Simple Plan, and TV shows, like Breaking Bad, which are works that bother to consider their characters as human beings as opposed to figures in a stylish essay on human lousiness.
The image presented here represents a significant improvement upon prior DVD editions. The reds have considerably greater contrast than before, and the other colors are generally much sharper and occasionally even painterly. Cinematographer Brian Tufano's contribution to the overall effectiveness of the film is more evident than ever before. The sound also boasts improved clarity and dimension, which particularly serves the final third of the film when things take an inevitable turn for the worse.
The commentary by director Danny Boyle is carried over from the 2009 DVD, but it's a lively recording that provides a number of interesting nuggets of wisdom that could be invaluable for low-budget directors looking to get the most production value for their buck. (One of my favorite bits: Boyle saying that he instructed the set designers to elevate the loft set so as to make room for windows that allow for more visibility outside, thus providing more background visual stimulation.) The commentary by producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge, recorded specifically for this Criterion edition, is dryer and inessential, with Macdonald often dominating the conversation with anecdotes that are repeated in other, more interesting features included on the disc.
"Digging Your Own Grave," directed by Kevin Macdonald, is a short documentary that provides an informative portrait of the overall process of making Shallow Grave with little in the way of meaningless puffery. Andrew and Kevin's video dairy shows the duo struggling to drum up financing for the film, and it includes notable figures such as Sam Fuller and an obviously dubious Robbie Coltrane. New interviews with Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston charmingly allow the actors to offer some contemporary retrospection. Rounding the package out are a trailer for Shallow Grave, a teaser for Trainspotting, and an appreciative essay by Philip Kemp.
"Shallow" is the right word for this stylish but overrated thriller, but fans should be pleased with the gorgeous transfer and generous smattering of extras.