Had we found someone dead in our university flat, we probably wouldn’t have been all that surprised. When different walks of life cohabit, it feels like an inevitable reaction to the stress and lack of quality living around them that they should, eventually, die. The weak make way for the strong anyway, and Shallow Grave at least has humorous intentions in its heart. Danny Boyle directs his debut feature with disturbing intentions that would lend themselves well to his craft for decades to come. Much of it is problematic not because of its intent, but because of how sloppy its first act feels. Breach through those issues, though, and Shallow Grave soon aspires to some delightfully delicate character developments.
Horrible people do inevitably horrible things to one another. They are charismatic, and that does much of the heavy lifting for Shallow Grave. That is what we can learn about Juliet Miller (Kerry Fox), David Stephens (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex Law (Ewan McGregor). They are unfairly horrible, and at times that lingers on the mind more than the pop-rock credibility Boyle would develop even further in his follow-up, Trainspotting. Broad comparisons can be made between the two, but it mainly comes from McGregor and what his frequent collaborations with Boyle embody. He is the stream of charisma that runs through his projects, but in Shallow Grave, he is the psychedelic push over the edge. He has hit the line, crossed it not through his own creative markings, but by having an inherent desire to depict McGregor as a man who can develop himself beyond a pithy journalist who represents an illogical fun side to the Boyle tropes to come.
But his framing devices do work. Mirror shots cut the hallway and living room in half, and they are complemented well by the dialogue. It is both punchy and pithy, McGregor, Eccleston and Fox have solid chemistry with one another. So they should. They are meant to be roommates. All the repressed gratification they seek by disposing of the other two flatmates starts to bubble up to the surface. Their lives would surely be easier without the other two holding them down. Self-interested merits hold themselves near and dear to these characters, who are frequently at each other’s throats not because they have severe grievances with one another, but because cohabitation has led them down the inevitable path of finding each and every one of their flatmates horrendously annoying. It is pitiful, but they are united in their hatred of everyone they seek out. Take the interviews for the flatmates that open the film, for instance, that much delivers the idea that they are dependent on grief and downtrodden woes. They feed off of it.
These flatmates are as sadistic as they come and as cold as the cadaver they hide from everyone around them. How greed affects us, and the outcomes of such deliberations are very much on the mind of Boyle throughout Shallow Grave. These characters are allowed to share the easy road out of the loser lifestyle, but cannot follow it, for they cannot share it. While there is some level of desperation to these characters and their desires for the finer things in life, they are already enjoying those moments. Here are three individuals not satisfied with their high society life, and are still wanting more. Where else is there for them to go? It is fine enough when they receive their comeuppance, they deserve it. Boyle makes sure we feel that way about them and does so with glee.