I never thought I’d look back on the remorseless black comedy Blood Simple as a model of compassion, but Shallow Grave makes Blood Simple look like Forrest Gump. A self-consciously stylish thriller from Scotland, the movie is a grating sensual experience — like John Carpenter’s Halloween, it gets on your nerves and stays there. But Carpenter also allowed you to care about his characters, and Shallow Grave, I’m afraid, is too hip for that. Director Danny Boyle, working from a skeletal script by John Hodge, distances us from the main characters — a doctor (Kerry Fox, from An Angel at My Table), a tabloid journalist (Ewan McGregor), and an accountant (Christopher Eccleston) sharing a simple, spacious flat — so that we become jaded spectators to their decline. Unable to fear for them, we wonder how low they will sink, what exponentially vile forms their moral squalor will take.
Boyle is a playful director; the movie is enjoyable for a while as it skitters across the surface. But if you want it to go deeper, you’re at the wrong show. I wonder if Boyle, having committed to the script and realized too late that there really isn’t one, tried to compensate with a busy camera and random poetic visuals. At one point, the accountant, who is going wacko, hides up in the attic and drills holes through the floor, to spy on his roomies. The light from below comes flooding up through the attic floor, sending dozens of white spotlights pointing every which way through the gloom. It’s very pretty. Problem is, the sound of a drill squealing through wood at all hours would bring the landlord running, or at least make the neighbors mighty curious. Shallow Grave almost never makes common sense.
The movie falls into a film noir lockstep without much conviction. At the beginning, the three roommates brutally reject anyone who applies for the empty room in their flat. If they’re going to be this antagonistic, why are they looking for another lodger in the first place? To get cheap jollies from turning down uncool people? They settle on a mysterious, saturnine man (Keith Allen) who claims to be a writer. We pick up flashes of bad vibes from him, but he isn’t around long. He OD’s in his room, leaving behind a suitcase full of money. The roommates, who are young professionals, see the money as a kick they can’t pass up.
Immediately, Boyle and Hodge have violated the emotional core of film noir: sweaty desperation as the trigger for evil. These yupster Scots aren’t hard up for cash. The doctor and the journalist spend the money stupidly, while the accountant scowls. He, you see, had been charged earlier with the ghastly task of dismembering the dead man. This seems to have popped a few of his synapses — a development the movie barely moves itself to explore. The cut-up body molders in its shallow grave, symbolizing whatever you want it to. Meanwhile, a three-way paranoia sets in at the flat. Life starts crumbling down.
Shallow Grave will impress those who have never seen Rope, the intricately subtle stunt by Alfred Hitchcock. By saying that, I don’t mean to sound like a film snob. Rope wasn’t art; it was very much a machine — Hitchcock testing himself, placing two dislikable characters at the center of a static movie. In that film, based glancingly on the Leopold-Loeb case, two brilliant, vicious students strangle someone for the sheer intellectual thrill of it, stash the corpse in a trunk, and throw a dinner party around it. Except for one shock-cut to the face of James Stewart (playing a professor whom the students assume will approve of their crime), Rope appeared to consist entirely of one 80-minute unbroken take, an effect Hitchcock achieved by “invisible” cuts at the end of every reel. Shallow Grave tries nothing so bold, and since the characters are not actually murderers (not at first, anyway), there’s nothing at stake. To keep us alert, Boyle and Hodge resort to introducing a pair of thugs who are after the suitcase; they show up every so often to torture people to death. The people they butcher mean nothing to us, and after a while we stop wincing at their brutality.
This leads to the movie’s most ruinous scene. Through some excellent detective work that Boyle doesn’t confide to us, the thugs trace the money to the threesome. They interrupt the doctor and journalist at dinner (how rude), while the loony accountant hovers over the cash in the attic. The thugs rough up the other two roomies, and the accountant lies in wait. Tipped to the money’s whereabouts, the thugs head up to the attic, and a stupid dread settles over you — the insensate twitchiness you feel at cheap horror movies, where bimbos stumble through darkness and you wait for something to spring out at them. Our nerves respond as expected, but we don’t give a damn whether the accountant ambushes the thugs, or the thugs kill him, or a giant spider crawls out and kills everybody. And guess what? Nothing crucial to the plot comes of this anyway. Now three bodies are found in the shallow grave instead of one. But these men are lowlife killers, and the authorities mount a major investigation into the murders of these three marginal criminals. Are the Scottish police that hard up for things to do?
Shallow Grave falls apart loudly from there. Boyle pumps himself up into a gory shoot-the-works climax; by then, the movie has forfeited any pretense of reality, though the violence at the end gives us a bit of a hard pinch. The characters keep shifting allegiances, which might have meant something if they’d had a shred of loyalty to violate. There’s a reversal and another reversal; twin sick jokes seal the movie, and the audience goes out buzzing. But what they buzz about is the mindless stress of being roughly handled for two hours. Shallow Grave is a death tease. It keeps promising something baroque and disgusting, and finally you get it. It’s pathetically easy for a thriller to make you feel physically menaced; the dozens of awful slasher films in the early ’80s did that. What’s difficult is making the audience feel emotionally menaced. The Silence of the Lambs did it quite elegantly, and Roman Polanski did it in Death and the Maiden and every other thriller he’s made. Danny Boyle is a gifted director, and Shallow Grave isn’t a weighted dud. He takes you for a ride. But his movie has the soul of a maggot, and the wicked novelty of people behaving abominably only goes so far. At some point, ordinary human compassion must take up the slack. Boyle isn’t a zippy enough director to make up for what’s missing. No one is.