Outside a stylish Glasgow flat rests a doormat with the message, "Not today, thank you." It's been put there by the flat's residents, a trio of twentysomethings obsessed with their own cynical chic. The pronouncement is in big block black letters, and as the yuppies give into greed and become killers, it turns ironic. Yet despite the wicked possibilities of the circumstances, these characters are in a doormat of a movie, called Shallow Grave. When you're thinking about visiting movie theaters heed this pronouncement: NOT TODAY, THANK YOU. If you don't, you too risk dying -- of boredom.
The movie's problem isn't so much its plot, which is, in fact, perversely lively: three shallow roommates need a fourth. They meet a prospect who's even cooler than they think they are. The new housemate moves in, only to die, leaving behind a mysterious criminal past and a suitcase full of cash. The roommates want the money. They dispose of the body, making sure that hands and teeth, face and feet are suitably hacked up and beyond recognition. Personal demons set in. So do other thugs. Which means more hacking. Which means more demons. Which means the police. Which means the friends turn on each other.
Sounds like Hitchcock, right? Or maybe Henri-Georges Clouzot? It's not. Screenwriter John Hodge doesn't flesh out the characters behind his compulsive narrative drive, and director Danny Boyle is more concerned with creating visual flair than with providing engaging suspense. The only turn of the diabolical screw here is the obvious one: the one-dimensional roommates are trying to screw each other. Shallow Grave is all surface-level attitude.
The movie opens with caustic posing, and never lets up. Alex (Ewan McGregor), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and David (Christopher Eccleston) interview potential roommates as if it were the Inquisition. They tell a nerd he's not worthy of them. They ask an applicant dressed in black to elaborate on the thought processes that go into deciding what shade to wear each day. "This affair you're not having," one of them smirks at a middle-aged man, "is it not with a man or not with a woman?" This scene is supposed to establish the trio as smart, in all senses of the word: bright, fashionable, stinging. What it does is establish them as obnoxious. They stay this way throughout the film, no matter how their alliances shift and no matter how the deadly business affects them individually. Hitchcock knew to humanize; Clouzot would switch narrative gears. Hodge and Boyle don't make anything be at stake, so we don't care what happens to either their characters or the money.
What Boyle gets wrapped up in is arty pictures. When the roommates discover the corpse, it's sprawled out naked on a velvet-draped bed, head angled here, knee bent there. When David is sawing away body parts, the back-lighting is all red sky, creeping fog and chiaroscuro. When he subsequently takes to living in the attic (because, I suppose, of an attack of the creeps) he drills holes in the floor to spy through, and the beams of light that funnel through are as nifty as Darth Vader's sword. The holes prompt David to become a voyeur when Juliet, to whom he's attracted, awakens in bed one morning and kicks away her covers to reveal a provocative flash of thigh. And with arched, high-ceilinged walls painted bright, contrasting colors, the roommates live in an apartment to die for. In Shallow Grave imagery is everything.
But it shouldn't be, particularly since David is an accountant and Juliet is a doctor (though we don't ever really see them at work). Their vocations fit so perfectly into the scheme of things that we expect they'll be important; they're not. Though David rails about spending sprees and Juliet is told that "you're a doctor, you kill people every day," what they do for a living is really immaterial; Hodge and Boyle develop a delicious opportunity, then allow it to dribble away. No money laundering, no scalpel butchery, nothing. With Alex, a journalist, this lack of development is even more conspicuous. His editor asks him to cover a case of unsolved murders -- the very ones he's helped commit. "This is your big break, son," his boss tells him, and Alex understandably pales. But what follows is, once again, nothing.
The audience's own imagination is called on to supply tension when, for instance, someone knocks on the door and the roommates wonder who it possibly could be, since they're not expecting anyone. The audience is: the cash-poor thugs, who, courtesy of Hodge and Boyle tipping their hands, are seen from time to time torturing people for information. When the cops arrive, we aren't let in on what they know or how they've come to know what they do know. In addition to having to figure this stuff out, the audience has to imagine (since Hodge and Boyle don't explain it) why the suitcase of money is hidden in a trunk of water, and also why there are camera shots from the loot's point of view.
Good intentions also give way to bad execution elsewhere. In one scene the roommates watch a fictitious game show called Lose a Million, while in another scene The Wicker Man, a wild pagan-ritual flick, is on the tube. In both cases the camera focuses in on the shows, front and center, stopping all action, instead of having them in the background. The result is that the commentary is too blatant, and paradoxically reinforces how few angles the writer and director have come up with. Indeed, though the actors are committed and solid (in particular Fox, who made such an emotionally fine-grained debut in An Angel at My Table), the characters they're given have only one personality trait -- acerbic Alex, blithe Juliet, edgy David -- and not terribly interesting ones at that.
On more than one occasion Shallow Grave tries to turn violent in the fiendish ways of the Coen brothers' first movies, but while it has some of the Coens' gore, it has none of their glee. Shallow Grave brings to mind two other nervy movies of late, The Grifters and The Last Seduction. For different reasons, all three are great to look at, but only the former two make good on their promises. Shallow Grave boasts smugness the likes of which you wipe your feet on.
Directed by Danny Boyle. With Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.