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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

First of Fourteen: Shallow Grave

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films. 

Danny Boyle is arguably the biggest filmmaker to come out of the UK in the past 15 to 20 years, he of the recent London Olympic opening ceremonies production, which is probably all one needs to know about the esteem in which he is held in his homeland. I personally am a moderate fan of his work. I found Trainspotting to be an exciting, frenetic film, and his genre work in 28 Days Later and Sunshine are two of my favorite excursions into horror and sci-fi respectively in the past decade. I'm bit more lukewarm with his recent Oscar-bait fare, the Academy Award Best Picture/Best Director winning Slumdog Millionaire and the nominated 127 Hours. They're both strong films on their individual merits, but they feel a bit tamer, perhaps more aiming for awards-bait then what the kind of filmmaking that I enjoy from Boyle. Keep in mind though, he isn't averse to a stinker or two, as A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach are two of the less pleasant film-going experiences I've had. I've never seen Shallow Grave, which bowed in 1994, and was his first collaboration with screenwriter John Hodge, with whom he would work with on Trainspotting, The Beach, and the upcoming Trance (set to be released this year). It's an interesting film, with some standout areas making up for shortcomings in others, but I can easily say I enjoyed it for the most part.


Shallow Grave is one part surreal black comedy, one part horror, and one part Coen Bros picture. To be brief, the film centers around three flatmates: Juliet - a doctor (Kerry Fox), David - an accountant (Christopher Eccleston), and Alex - a journalist (Ewan McGregor). In the opening scenes, they're seeking out a fourth, but they don't make it easy. Their clear clique-ishness and pretension leads to impenetrable interviews with prospective roommates, who they see out the door with a flourish. When they finally land a roommate that they aren't completely turned off by, he turns up dead in the fourth bedroom with a suitcase full of cash. You can guess the obvious conundrum, "call the cops or keep the money and get rid of the body?", based on the title of the film, you can guess which option they go with. It's not the most inventive plot. Yet, through kinetic lensing on Boyle's part and some rather strong performances, the film is able to overcome any of its shortcomings.

Boyle and his behind-the-camera team are really the MVPs here, in his mastery of not just tone, but also setting of mood. The visual flair of the film is generally undeniable. Even from its opening shots, where we're treated to a high-speed tour of Glasgow before arriving at the flatmates' home, you know you're in for something approximating Gen-X style cinema. From a design standpoint, the three flatmates live in an immaculately designed home, full of vibrant colors and the cinematography highlights this surreal version of life in which all three characters live in and out of. Were it not for a few outside sequences, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that this film could be performed on stage as the majority of the film's action (at least 90% of its running time) takes place within the flat that is the prime mover of events. My favorite shot of the entire work, and though there are many, is when the dead flatmate is left where he died while everyone else is at work and the camera just sort of hovers over his body to the sounds of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" by Nina Simone. The film does not shy away from casual blood either, while it isn't excessive, kill scenes are realistically wince-inducing (give or take a knife scene towards the end, which highlights some budget limitations); with blood pouring down an ATM after an old man is attacked by thugs, or another sequence where a man is drowned in a bathtub via interrogation of a sorts, it's effective brutal to say the least.

We only ever receive fleeting glimpses of their lives outside of their home, and it seems as though their jobs are basically a distraction from the enjoyment they have spending time with each other. Alex, for example, is easily distracted from a phone call by a girl in his office, Juliet can barely pay attention to what her fellow doctors are talking about, and David receives a, rather dull, lecture from his boss at the firm. The only time the characters are ever shown to be really alive is when they spend time with each other, it's what makes the foreboding doom that approaches all the more tragic. The film has one very clear conceit, that money is the root of all evil and can drive a wedge between even the closest of friends. What's ironic is that its clear that these characters are also so self-involved, that their friendships are just a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off. All it ends up taking is one very aggressive Alex to ask the question "who's going to know?", and one domino falls right after the other. The problem of course being, someone always knows. This is actually a huge credit to the script, as a lesser film would likely give our heroes some chance at reprieve. Yet, between the pursuing owners of the suitcase and the then encroaching police who discover said "shallow grave", where the three flatmates bury not only the overdosed man but also their illicit pursuers, the chances of salvation are slim. Ironically, it's neither that provides their final downfall, as they simply are unable to escape being themselves.

There are moments of drag toward the second act; where after being the poor bloke that has to cut off the feet, hands, and smash the teeth in of the dead body before its buried, David, the meekest of the team begins to hole himself in his room and then in the upstairs attic. At one point, he's almost Gollum-like, hoarding the suitcase of money in his attic-cave and bizarrely drilling peep-holes through the ceiling to spy on the other two. Once the friends' comeuppance is at hand and their finally caught by the gangsters at their home, there's a moment where David suddenly turns into an avenging crusader of a sorts, killing both intruders. My first thoughts were that this was probably how the happy ending will occur, and then I realized that there were 45 minutes left in the film. Boyle successfully subverted my expectations in that final third, and the closing moments are what really leave a lasting impression. Its here where the friendships are fully ruined beyond repair. The final minutes of Shallow Grave are where the film turns into utter absurdity, but it may be the most enjoyable part of the entire piece as it revels in this ridiculousness. The fighting between the three friends is almost Sam Raimi-like, and inappropriately hilarious. By the climax, the person who is treated the worst by the other two is made to be the scary villain of the piece, and the real schemer of the group is one who gets away, but not necessarily with everything they wanted; one final knife to the back, or the front as the case may be. No one gets away clean.

Acting throughout is superb, and though there are capable supporting performances, Shallow Grave centers around just our three leads and the on-camera talent elevates the script just as much as the work going on behind it. Ewan McGregor made his film debut here and is quite electrifying in his performance, giving audiences a nice preview of the charismatic portrayal he'd give just a year later in Trainspotting for Boyle. Eccleston and Fox are also wonderful, and it's especially neat to see a younger Eccleston who I came to enjoy as the Ninth Doctor on BBC's long running Doctor Who series. The chemistry between all three is undeniable, and despite the fact that the script gives you no real indication as to how they became friends and what the actual depth of their relationships are (are they sexually involved? they certainly have no problem appearing nude in front of each other), the sense of history is there just in the performances, and the shifting allegiances, particularly by Fox become all the more painful and betraying when they occur.

Shallow Grave is an impressive debut for Boyle, and is a film of two prevailing emotional states, where dark humor surrounds the film in its opening and first 30 or so minutes, once the first body is finally disposed of, it becomes a much bleaker experience. In terms of ranking it in his overall filmography, while it isn't as ambitious as 28 Days Later or Sunshine, the pure gut punch of Trainspotting, or even the somewhat stronger script of 127 Hours; Shallow Grave is a wonderful debut that's just slightly rough around the edges. Throughout it's a great display of the natural talent that Boyle has as a filmmaker when the concept is suited to his strengths. It certainly has re-evaluated my thoughts about his work and gives me enough pause to think maybe I should re-visit The Beach sometime, then again, probably not.

If I were to grade this film, I would give it a B+, as its slightly saggy in the middle, with a bit of an overbearing score; but it's bookended by some great work, and backed by some of my favorite song selections in a film.

Next up on First of Fourteen: I take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature Hard Eight/Sydney, and then The Coen Bros' debut Blood Simple.
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