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The new flatmate of three preexisting roommates turns up mysteriously dead but in possession of a large sum of money. When the roommates decide to keep it for themselves, their action sets in motion a destructive chain of events that spiral out of control. Written by
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engrossing as much as off-putting, psychologically interesting and thrilling, well done
Shallow Grave, the debut film from director Danny Boyle (also from his fellow producer and screenwriter from other films he made in the 90s), has a fatalistic edge to it, but where it will really go is anyone's guess. It's practically impossible to identify with these three main characters- Kerry Fox as Juliet, Christopher Eccleston as David, and Ewan McGregor as Alex- as they're all cynical and sarcastic to the bone, rarely sympathetic, and friends through and through. The latter part might be a little more recognizable in such a very easy kind of story for these characters, who after finding their new roommate dead in his room have to 'take care' of the situation. This becomes further complicated, both practically and morally, when a suitcase of money is found from the ex-roomer. This is at the core something of a simple dilemma kind of issue tale that could fit very easily onto a kid's show (minus all the death of course, as finding-money was also used in Boyle's film Millions). But Shallow Grave also happens to have the ingredients for a horror film as well as film-noir, tragedy as much as thriller, with bits of pitch-black comedy thrown in for good measure.
One of the cool, unnerving things about the film as well is how, after a while, you can't really be sure who's really sane or not. But even as it is a story of friends, it is more closer to being Eccleston's movie, as a character who goes through the darkest change out of the three of them. He starts out as the sanest of the uptight middle class three, or at least the most reasonable when the circumstances strike up. But through grisly turns of events, he becomes the most un-balanced of the bunch, and Boyle is able to get with his DP Brian Tufano some really powerful moments visually up in the attic. As further complications go on, it becomes not really a tale of morality but one of keeping a bond that is breaking always. But the psychological turns are made better, and not too circumspect or dumb, by the actors. In truth, some of what the characters decide and then go through is a bit too implausible even for a thematically violent film like this. But it's a fresh showcase for all three actors for their gifts- McGregor's Alex seems like a sociopath through most of the film, and his change doesn't make him more likable but still very intense by the acting. Eccleston has what should be one of the performances of his career as the mild-mannered and then loose-edged flat-mate. And Kerry Fox is good, if a little typical as the lady of the house. Her own role in the film is further complicated by lustful intentions and all that- she could be considered a femme fatale if it were that easy.
And Shallow Grave is, above all else, a very good film at style trumping the substance, which itself isn't that bad as being B-movie fare, to which he would put to best use with Trainspotting. Here I'm reminded of the cinematic freedom and inventiveness taken in such 'pulp' matter by first time filmmakers in the 90s, and even in the story's weakest points (and there are a few in due to logic and the dialog sometimes) it's never boring. There's a cringe/funny kind of scene with Alex and Juliet using some new merchandise for some lewd and f***ed up purposes, and it's filmed in a perfectly amateurish way. And in dealing with the more disturbing subject matter, it helps that Boyle and writer John Hodge only show what is necessary (i.e. some of the 'grave' scenes) so that it doesn't become stale or with that sort of kick needed for the material. By the end, too, as in other noir stories, there is a twist that comes, but it isn't even much expected as the characters have met their fates. But it has the advantage of not being a cop-out either. Shallow Grave is, when it comes down to it, that splendid of things- a directorial calling card that speaks to his skills with actors (more so in casting to a T), mixing comedy and drama, and hip use of camera-work. Nothing really 'deep' or great, but it's a nifty little midnight movie from merry old England. 8.5/10
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