I want to celebrate the film Shallow Grave 25 years later for a myriad of reasons. When it came out in 1994 and played in arthouse theaters, it was a movie that I immediately fell hard for. People who know me already think I just say that because one of the three leads is Ewan McGregor. The fact is that I didn’t even know who he was at the time, because this was his first international starring role. McGregor and his two costars, Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston, give astonishing performances. But I’ll talk about how young Ewan made me love him later in this article. This was also the directorial debut of Danny Boyle, and one could see by this film that he already had a unique and enrapturing eye.
Boyle captivates us immediately by circling the face of David (Eccleston) while his voiceover narrates a brief monologue that gives you a feel for what’s coming, ending with, “If you can’t trust your friends, well what then? What then?” The camera then zooms quickly through Scottish neighborhood streets, intercut with a slow zoom. There’s a tracking shot of David walking upstairs in a circular motion to a flat. Finally, we get a high-energy scene of three roommates interviewing people to be the fourth. The quick edits of these fun and smug characters intimidating potential candidates with obnoxious and impossible questions makes you wonder what path David, Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (McGregor) will take us on.
The roommates seem to have a comfortable dynamic. During the interview process, they fall all over each other in hysterics. Alex and Juliet seem to have a crush on each other that they don’t really confront too much. David may fancy Juliet a bit quietly, too. This is not that unusual for single people cohabitating for a while, but these three seem to have it under control. Juliet is a doctor, David is an accountant, and Alex is a reporter. The goofing off that these three do together helps them wind down from the seriousness of their occupations.
The three finally find a roommate who seems up to their standards. His name is Hugo, and as far as they know, he’s a novelist. We soon see in cuts that he is a thief and murderer who has recently made a big score of a ton of money with two other gangsters and hid it all in a briefcase under his bed in his new home. He celebrates by overdosing naked, to be found dead by Alex, Juliet, and David. They find the briefcase, too. That’s when things get complicated.
They decide that they will split the money. But there is the slight complication of getting rid of Hugo’s corpse and car. Once they get to the burial site with all sorts of hardware, Juliet gets cold feet about cutting up the actual cold feet and other appendages to bury. Assuming they would all help with the carnage, Alex remarks, “But Juliet, you’re a doctor. You kill people every day.” The three of them draw straws for the all-or-nothing job of sawing off limbs, grinding down fingerprints, and smashing his dental work. Unassuming, uptight David draws the short straw. He does the dirty work while Alex digs a hole. Is he digging it deep enough? You can probably guess as much by the title of this film. They push Hugo’s car into a lake.
Alex and Juliet’s flirtation gets deeper at a charity dinner. When they dance, he falls to the floor, and she seductively puts her foot on his chest with her toes pointing to his face. He kisses her ankle. Hmm. At the dinner table, David seriously wants to talk, but Alex and Juliet get peeved that he won’t drink to their toast of “love and happiness forever.” They are interrupted by an old colleague who wants to dance with Juliet. David yells at the guy while claiming Juliet is his girlfriend. His roommates love seeing his dominant, forceful side, but do not see that David is beginning to crack like ole Hugo’s skull after being smashed with a hammer.
Alex and Juliet go on a frivolous day of spending while David is at work. When he comes home, he finds them partying and giggling in front of the television, watching a video they made with their new camera showing them having a blast with their new clothes and toys. Oh yeah, Alex is in a sparkly dress and makeup (McGregor looking very glam-rock a few years before Velvet Goldmine). Needless to say, David is not pleased. During dinner, they say he’d feel better if he spent some money. Alex explains that this would be all for nothing if he didn’t use the cash. David’s counterpoint: “Yeah, and you didn’t saw his feet off.”
David grows increasingly mad. He moves into the attic loft with the money. The paranoia between the three builds. The two criminals who worked with Hugo had tracked down where he went with the money. They beat and attack Juliet and Alex. When Alex screams that the money is in the attic loft, they go upstairs, only to be killed and thrown back down by David. They are disposed of in the same way that they disposed of Hugo.
Police detectives come to the flat shortly thereafter and interview David. Alex and Juliet come home to find the money in the upstairs loft. Alex expects to see David there but doesn’t find him. There are holes that David drilled all along the attic floor so he can watch his roommates, keeping a paranoid eye on them. While Alex looks for the cash and finds it in a water tank that the briefcase was hidden in, David quietly grabs Juliet and shushes her, Alex comes down the stairs, and David confronts him with the electric drill. He interrogates Alex with the drill pointed at his forehead, asking if he has gone to the police. A small amount of blood is drawn before Juliet calmly stops David.
While Alex discovers through his boss that three mutilated bodies were found in a few shallow graves and that he is the one who gets to cover the story, Juliet gets intimate with David to keep him at bay. None of the roommates trust each other at this point, and they all have separate scenarios in their minds about how all this is going to end. Their paranoia is at a breaking point, and betrayal is imminent.
This all leads to a final violent showdown with Juliet, David, and Alex attacking each other for survival and money. I won’t give away the absolutely brilliant twist ending, but it doesn’t finish very well for two of them. I have to keep at least one secret, right?
Danny Boyle’s debut fulfilled his promise of a hell of a career to come. His follow-up, Trainspotting, made Boyle and McGregor international indie darlings. If you watch those films back to back, you can spot a few ideas Boyle used in both. They both start with a racing camera and a main character narrating. Electronic music is prominent in them as well. My favorite self-nod is the crawling baby. In Shallow Grave, Juliet and Alex have a creepy toy baby moving around their flat and laughing ominously while they are celebrating after their spending spree. Trainspotting has this eerily effective scene of a character going through cold-turkey withdrawals from heroin, imagining a deceased baby crawling on the ceiling.
Boyle went on to win an Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing for the film Slumdog Millionaire. That movie is about a teenager in India accused of cheating his way through the game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? In a scene in Shallow Grave, Alex is on the couch watching a game show called Lose A Million. Coincidence?
One of my favorite shots in Shallow Grave is the spinning ceiling of the spiral staircase of the building the roommates live in. It looks like an eye, and Boyle mimics it with David’s eye looking through one of the holes he drilled through the attic floor. That circular eye show is repeated again at the end of the film.
Needless to say, I highly recommend Shallow Grave. And what about my 25-year crush on Ewan McGregor? His performance in this was one of those that made me ask myself. “Who’s that?” I just thought his characterization of Alex was adorable and naughty, much like many of my other favorite McGregor roles over the years.