Billy B’s review published on Letterboxd:
You know that episode of ‘Peep Show’ where Jez eats a dog? Yeah, that’s what ‘Shallow Grave’ reminds me of.
Well, sort of. Bear with me here.
It’s a storytelling device that’s been used in quite a few sitcoms, through which new extremes are reached at every turn of the plot. In the aforementioned ‘Holiday’ episode, the viewer is led to believe a number of times that things can’t get any worse for Mark and Jez, only for them to subsequently get much worse. ‘The Work Outing’, an episode from series 2 of ‘The It Crowd’, is similarly extreme, ending with a wheelchair-bound Roy departing for Manchester and Moss finding himself stuck with a job behind the bar at a theatre.
It’s an odd comparison to make, but you might be able to see where I’m coming from. Of course, ‘Shallow Grave’ utilises this technique in a very different way. For one, it’s much less farcical than the above examples, favouring a darker style of comedy and making the consequences even more severe. But there are a few similarities to be drawn. What seems to be a simple premise (in this case: three friends, a dead flatmate and a suitcase full of money) is used as the momentum for a series of wholly unpredictable plot twists, resulting in the eventual collapse of the relationship between the main characters.
As a viewer, this breakdown is rather satisfying to watch; after all, these characters aren’t exactly depicted as the most pleasant of people. In the first scene, we see David, Juliet and Alex interview a series of candidates who are hoping to move in. It’s an undoubtedly funny scene, but the flatmates come across as intentionally patronising to their interviewees. Here, we also see just how close their friendship is; the moment where the three are laughing together is later run over the closing credits, emphasising just how much has changed over the course of the film.
But this scene also makes the flatmates seem somewhat outsider-ish, irreverent even, which appears to directly contrast their professional life: David is an accountant, Juliet a doctor, and Alex a journalist. Together, the trio seem to form an unbreakable family unit, although, of course, this isn’t true. Before long, their insecurities are brought out into the open and the crew (gang? fam?) begins to fall apart. It starts with David, the only one to have any real reservations about keeping the money. You can tell he wants to call the police, but is ultimately just to afraid to do so, whether that’s because he thinks it might already be too late, or because he doesn’t want to spoil his friends’ fun. Either way, I’ll admit to feeling slightly sorry for him in that moment.
Of course, this is partly down to a superb performance from Christopher Eccleston, who recently surprised ‘Doctor Who’ fans everywhere (including myself) when it was announced that he would be reprising his role as the Ninth Doctor after fifteen years. Together, the leading trio work exceptionally well, which is lucky, as the film would pretty much fall flat otherwise. Kerry Fox captures Juliet’s perplexing, ambiguous nature perfectly, while Ewan McGregor is brilliantly cast as Alex, who delivers some of the film’s funniest one-liners, courtesy of screenwriter John Hodge. As well as being the debut of both Hodge and McGregor, ‘Shallow Grave’ was also Danny Boyle’s first feature film.
Boyle’s clever, self-assured approach to directing, even this early in his career, is a major contributor to the film’s success. He doesn’t shy away from the more violent and gory aspects of the film, making this one of the blackest of all black comedies. In many ways, his visual style often gives ‘Shallow Grave’ the feeling of a psychological horror film. This is echoed through Simon Boswell’s delightfully creepy score, which wouldn’t seem out of place in a Dario Argento picture. This really is about as good as directing debuts get, and it would mark the birth of one of British cinema’s most well-known names.