Remember when Ewan McGregor wasn’t famous? It’s easy if you try. Try to think back beyond the skin-crawlingly bad Davidoff advert. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away from questionable roles in Lucas franchises, indulgent indie flicks and Renée Zellweger vehicles, and the tour de force of Trainspotting, came this extraordinary breakthrough as the brittle, cocky, flirtatious, charismatic yet vulnerable and ultimately doomed journalist Alex Law. Just the right side of personable, but fallible and perverse, McGregor’s potential was perfectly realised in this startling deconstruction of a friendship that twists around on itself and ultimately eats its own head.
It’s 15 years since the original release of Shallow Grave and director Danny Boyle is enjoying something of a renaissance, so this DVD release is timely, and also holds up well considering its age. It showcases Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor to perfection as three twenty-somethings living the good life in an Edinburgh flatshare, and all three relative unknowns hit the ground running as compelling professionals with something to prove. Sometimes it’s obvious when a film is going to be more than the sum of its parts, but this was a genuine surprise on its release, and the risks still feel justifiable. Even Keith Allen couldn’t arse this one up, although his involvement is mercifully brief: one of the big shocks on first viewing is how Allen’s Hugo, who promises to make enormous waves as the fourth housemate, gets killed off within 20 minutes. This and several other bold decisions marks Danny Boyle’s directorial debut as a masterclass in how to make a film of substance and style for a paltry million quid. While there would be critical orgasms galore for Trainspotting, this film was – for me – always the more interesting proposition as a study in fucked-up friendship and trust (as well as duplicity, sex and dismemberment).
As Eccleston posits at the offset: if you can’t trust your friends, what then? It’s a gorgeous, balls-out opening sequence that almost makes me defect to Leftfield (almost). In those first moments where we see Alex, Juliet (Fox) and David (Eccleston) interview prospective candidates for the spare room, we are presented with all the cool, calculated cruelty necessary to know them, we feel privvy to the self-contained unit they represent and find ourselves sharing the adrenaline rush of mocking anyone who dares to enter their inner sanctum. The script wastes no time in demonstrating the unsettling unity of the three characters as they push and pull against each other in claustrophobic camaraderie, reacting even more violently to anyone who dares to threaten their questionable living arrangement, with questions such as, “How do you decide what shade of black to wear in the morning?”, “This affair that you’re not having: is it not with a man or not with a woman?”, “Do you freebase?” and “How’d you react if I told you I were the anti-Christ?”
When Hugo arrives, we are told he is in search of the self. However, his death from a drug overdose forces the three protagonists to explore and redefine who they are and what they are capable of doing for a) self-preservation, and b) the million pounds that Hugo has left behind. It is then just a matter of chasing their moral centres, which shift and slide as easily as the dialogue, as we observe the disintegration of relations stretched to snapping because of a pact to remove the dead man’s body and cover their tracks by removing his feet, hands and teeth. That Shallow Grave was written by a doctor is hardly surprising given the humour, detachment and mechanical precision of the burial sequences and the characters’ responses in its aftermath. In one particularly vivid sequence of a friendship on the brink, the three characters attend a medical benefit and Alex ends up on the floor with Juliet’s stilettoed heel pressed deliberately into his face, while David loses his shit with one of Juliet’s paramours, threatening to put him in a ‘fucking binbag’. The suffocating nature of their friendship yields a series of manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres as they feed off each other’s paranoia, while attacking anyone who threatens to destroy their poisonous union.
What is striking even now is how deftly the writing exposes David’s post-traumatic stress disorder and how smoothly his inscrutable facade slips with his eventual breakdown. As the other two struggle to maintain an uneasy equilibrium within the home dynamic, David retreats to the attic with the cash and distances himself not only from the world but the two people with whom he is meant to be the closest. However, he doesn’t hesitate over getting rid of Hugo’s acquaintances when they show up looking for the money. The instinct for self-preservation is honed – even as David’s sense of self disappears under layers of mental scars – beyond ‘fight or flight’ to a refined model that seeks to remove all traces of identification from the bodies of the dead men, even as journalist Alex is asked to report on the crimes he has watched play out. But given the sophistry of their pact, it’s only a matter of time before one of them pulls rank, brutalised and suspicious, as the detectives close in. Each passing moment reveals fresh betrayal and mental torture until life itself hangs on a knife edge. Eccleston’s idiosyncratic portrayal of damaged goods is breathtaking, while the glassy-eyed Fox plays tormentor and tormented with equanimity and McGregor is a revelation as the character who, although fixated on the cash to the very end, comes closest to locating the film’s moral compass.
The DVD’s extras aren’t exhaustive, but they are illuminating. Documentary ‘Digging Your Own Grave’ touches on the limitations of budget and schedule, and actually attributes the word ‘megalomania’ to the living space used to project the insular, tortured inner landscape of the three leads and their mounting claustrophobia and clashing personalities. But it is Boyle’s DVD commentary that floods this release with anecdotal charm, insight and giddiness. His joy as filmmaker is irrepressible as he underlines the importance of taking bold decisions, even on a shoestring, and sticking to one’s guns in creating those pivotal moments, such as the glorious shot of the three leads bursting into Hugo’s room or Eccleston rotating on a slab at the morgue. He pays his respects to Scorsese and the Coen Brothers, and sources as diverse as Sunset Boulevard, British politics and his daughter’s bedroom. He also reveals the best footballer on set, how they hired a million quid for the day just to get those inspired money shots, and how an audacious manipulation of colour, camera trickery, human resources and time itself all assisted in binding the central characters together in stultifying symbiosis. We also find out exactly how they managed to stick that blade through Eccleston’s neck pre-CGI, and his reaction when the cameras stop rolling is priceless.
Boyle’s sadistic vision of British film noir continues to beguile on repeated viewings, although it is amusing to learn that initial reactions to an early market screening of the movie in Cannes ranged from ‘fucking magic’ to ‘absolute garbage’. It’s also worth pointing out that Shallow Grave has given rise to its very own Trivial Pursuits question – which low-budget British film features not one but two masters of the universe? Might be worth remembering if you’re ever missing a pink piece of pie, or want to silence that irascible Doctor Who fan.
Shallow Grave is out now.