By now, people like Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston are all household names. But 30 years ago during the height of the independent movie’s golden era, they made Shallow Grave, a psychological thriller/black comedy that is most impressive when you consider all that had to be done to complete funding.
When the movie opens, Alex Law (McGregor), a vain and somewhat obnoxious journalist, lives in an Edinburgh flat with David Stephens (Eccleston), a shy but stoic accountant, and Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), a young doctor who works at the local hospital. Even though they act friendly around each other, there’s still some distance in their relationships. (Boyle had them all live together prior to filming at which point they didn’t really get along, which helps.) They’re busy interviewing potential flatmates that they know they won’t approve just to amuse themselves in watching them fail.
They are a representation of the young Gen Xers living in adulthood in the early 1990s without much of a care in the world. They’re adults but they still act like children somewhat as their flat is the equivalent of the “cool kid’s table.” All they’re looking for is to have whatever fun and joy their disdain and sarcasm will allow them. One day, when only Juliet is at the flat, a mysterious older man, Hugo (Keith Allen), shows up inquiring about the rent. He appears enigmatic and likable. Later he has dinner with all three of them who like him.
But Hugo has a history. He’s a violent killer and also a drug dealer. He’s skipped town with a suitcase of money from drug deals and other crimes, such as killing a man at an ATM, just to drain his bank account. He’s being pursued by his former partners, Andy (Peter Mullan) and Tim (Leonard O’Malley), who are just as violent as Hugo. They tie a man up and drown him in the bathtub to get information. Another man, they lock in a huge freezer to die, after he has told them what they want to hear.
Yet, Alex, David and Juliet don’t know this. Hugo moves in but locks himself in the room. A day or two passes and they don’t see or hear from him. His car doesn’t move from where it’s parked outside. When they break into his room, they discover him lying in bed nude dead. A quick search of his possessions turns up drugs as he presumably died of an overdose. Juliet goes to call the police but Alex finds the suitcase of money under the bed.
What to do next? They contemplate contacting authorities or just finding a way to dispose of Hugo and keep the money. Both Alex and Juliet want to get rid of Hugo and keep the money because he probably didn’t have many people close to him. But David is still on the fence, until he agrees. Alex and David shop through the hardware store gleefully gathering hacksaws and shovels.
But as the it gets closer, moods change. They take the body and cut it up to bury out in a remote rural area, but David does the cut when they draw lots. Juliet takes other body parts to identify Hugo and she puts them in with some other biohazard materials sent to be incinerated at the hospital. Alex takes the car to a cliff that overlooks a water way and pushes it over, hoping it’ll sink to the bottom but it can clearly be seen in the water.
Then, David slowly loses his mind as Alex and Juliet go out and splurge some of the money. He sets up a mattress in the loft above their flat where he keeps the suitcase at all times, calling into work saying he’s got a family emergency. And when Andy and Tim make their way to their flat, there’s more violence. Even though Grave premiered on this date in the United Kingdom, it didn’t open in American theaters until later in 1995 appearing at the Sundance Film Festival first. Reportedly, Robert Redford got so upset over the violence in the movie he walked out of the theater.
I wouldn’t call the movie really violent. Boyle, like many directors, gets more out of showing less so maybe that’s what upset Redford. Andy and Tim are not the best people in the world. And neither is Hugo. But the movie asks us to look at how far will we go if presented with the opportunity. Alex, David and Juliet aren’t really the best of friends when the movie opens. They are more connected on their behavior. So, when they begin turning against one another as they always do in these movies, it’s a little bit more expected.
You’ve heard the phrase “No honor among thieves?” Well, I think they’re thieves to begin with. At the beginning of the movie when they are interviewing flatmates, a young man, Cameron (Colin McCredie) is mocked by them. Later, they see him when he is working at a benefit fundraiser they are attending, Alex mocks him again. This results in Cameron following Alex to the restroom to assault him. Realizing that his actions might have consequences, he feels that David and Juliet might turn on him. David begins to drill hole in the ceiling so he can watch everything that is happening below.
Grave was filmed within 30 days on a budget of about $2.5 million (or one million pounds) but many props on the movie had to be auctioned off so film stock could be bought. Filming was mostly done in Glasgow despite being set in Edinburgh because the filmmakers were able to obtain a grant of $150,000 through the Glasgow Film Fund. It would be the first collaboration with Boyle as director, Andrew Macdonald as producer and John Hodge as screenwriter. This was also McGregor’s first lead role in a movie. He had previously appeared in a minor role in Being Human, released in 1994. Before that he had appeared on TV.
When the movie was shown at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival (along with Pulp Fiction which took the prestigous Palme d’Or), more screenings were requested because the movie was so popular. Unfortunately, the critics weren’t as happy. Roger Ebert gave it just two starts dismissing it. Janet Maslin with the New York Times was also criticial of the movie. Despite this, it would go on to make about $20 million worldwide, which was a modest success and set the stage for Boyle’s next movie Trainspotting paving the way for Boyle to work with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach and McGregor being hired by George Lucas to play the younger version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
You can see a lot of Boyle’s techniques that he would late utilizes such as filming scenes in a 10mm Zeiss lens to give them a fish-eye quality. Boyle has been one of the more popular directors of the MTV generation with his techniques. And sometimes that’s hurt him. I still say his best work was his earlier works like Grave and Trainspotting. I really didn’t care for his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire which I felt was more like someone trying to imitate him. His 28 Days Later had some great scenes but I was let down.
What do you think? Please comment.