Boyle’s unique style arrives fully-formed with this directorial debut, and he’d only improve upon it.
Danny Boyle’s 21st century films feature an eclectic mix of subject matter that nevertheless has tended toward a theme of perseverance or survival. Whether his protagonists elude zombie-like hordes (28 Days Later), cut off their own pinned limb (127 Hours), rise from abject poverty in an Indian ghetto to achieve a gameshow windfall (Slumdog Millionaire) or change the world through a singular innovative vision (Steve Jobs), Boyle’s more recent films often present us with figures, real or imagined, who overcome almost impossible odds. And yet he rose to acclaim in the ‘90s by applying his vivid visual style and kinetic storytelling to madcap tales of scheming, selfish people who screw each other over for money.
A suitcase full of cash has often served as the impetus for cinematic mayhem, and in Boyle’s directorial debut, Shallow Grave, a trio of irreverent flatmates have one fall into their collective lap when a new tenant promptly overdoses in his bedroom. Edinburgh residents Alex (Ewan McGregor), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and David (Christopher Eccleston) are first depicted as irreverent and cruel in their various interviews of potential flatmates, messing with the parade of prospects for their own entertainment until they settle on the short-lived Hugo (Keith Allen). Despite their respectful professions—Alex a journalist, Juliet a doctor and David an accountant—the group is immature and brash, but the gravity of their situation sets in as they realize that, in order to keep all of Hugo’s dough, they’ll have to dispose of his body.
They decide the best way to conceal their involvement and prevent identification is to remove the corpse’s hands, feet and teeth. Though Juliet has likely cut into her fair share of cadavers during medical school, she doesn’t volunteer, and the group draws straws. David, the most squeamish of the bunch, picks the short one, and he ultimately does the messy work with a hand saw and sledgehammer. He’s forever altered as a result. With the body buried in the woods, Juliet dumps the appendages in the hospital’s incinerator, and she and Alex attempt to continue on as before, goofing off together, albeit with a bit more money in their pockets to fuel impulsive shopping sprees. The traumatized David, on the other hand, grows increasingly paranoid as the police begin poking around due to a break-in one floor below. To keep a closer eye on the money, he retreats to its hiding place in the attic and begins drilling holes in the floor to surveil the actions of his friends below.
This comes in particularly handy when two toughs invade their home to forcefully retrieve the ill-gotten cash, which Hugo unsurprisingly hadn’t acquired honestly. After lying in wait and dispatching the intruders with a hammer, David and his flatmates have two more bodies to deal with, and their attempts to outwit each other and walk away with the money—complete with flashes of seduction and jealousy—reach a breaking point as investigators discover the grave in the woods. With a screenplay by John Hodge, who would go on to write Boyle’s subsequent ‘90s films Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary, Shallow Grave hinges on the common trope of the double-cross. David stabs Alex, pinning him to floorboards, but he’s stabbed in the throat by Juliet before he can land a death blow. With a plane ticket for South America in hand, Juliet doesn’t rescue Alex but instead pushes the knife deeper into his shoulder and departs with the cash, only to discover that Alex has pulled a fast one on her and swapped the money out with stacks of shredded newspaper.
Boyle’s clever camera angles and stunning use of color are present throughout Shallow Grave, and the combination of both is perhaps most effectively wielded as, with a vibrant red pool stretching out on the floor beneath him, Alex smiles and the camera pans down under the floorboards where his blood drips onto the hidden cash. Elsewhere, Boyle uses the building’s spiral staircase not only as a cumbersome obstacle to impede three people secretly moving a body, but also for its dazzling, prison-like visual effect in the shadows cast by its railing. Though Boyle’s camera peers down the spiral staircase, evoking a sense of Hitchcockian vertigo, he often frames shots looking upwards at other people, as with Alex lying on the floor staring up at Juliet both in playful and violent scenarios, or with a torture victim peering up through the transparent icebox door at his two attackers looming overhead. And Boyle keeps the camera at ground level as David stands in the titular hole and frantically carries out the grisly task of dismembering the corpse, a shot which obscures the gore from view and allows the viewer to instead focus on David’s traumatizing labor.
Shallow Grave marked McGregor’s feature film acting debut, and he’s certainly framed as our anti-hero, a character who is neither undone by the stress of the situation nor particularly malicious compared to his flatmates. But despite strong performances from McGregor, Fox and Eccleston, Hodge’s script doesn’t give us much insight into their humanity. They start as cruel and obnoxious and end as violent and unhinged. Hodge’s script for Trainspotting would go on to give us characters with far more complexities and dimension. Nevertheless, Boyle’s unique style arrives fully-formed with this directorial debut, and he’d only improve upon it (despite missteps like The Beach along the way) in the decades to come, even if he’d subsequently shift his narrative focus from ragtag bands of schemers to survivors and inspiring underdogs.