J.D. Lafrance
Shallow Grave: Criterion Collection DVD Review

Shallow Grave: Criterion Collection

June 25, 2012

Director: Danny Boyle,
Starring: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Ken Stott, Keith Allen, Colin McCredie, Peter Mullan,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Shallow Grave (1994) announced the arrival of a formidable trio of Scottish filmmakers: screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald and director Danny Boyle. Their calling card was a nasty little thriller starring then relatively unknown actors Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor. The film was a modest international hit but a big success in the United Kingdom, paving the way for future success for all involved.

“If you can’t trust your friends well what then?” asks David Stevens (Eccleston) at the beginning of the film via voiceover narration. He and his roommates Alex (McGregor) and Juliet (Fox) are looking for one more person to fill the occupancy in their spacious Edinburgh apartment. They’re single young professionals and are a tight-knit trio who rigorously screen prospective roommates by mocking them, insulting them and basically playing on any perceived weaknesses.

They haven’t found anyone good until Hugo (Allen), a writer who charms Juliet and impresses Alex and David with his directness. Everything goes swimmingly until Hugo’s prolonged absence begins to mystify them. Eventually, curiosity gets the better of them and they break into Hugo’s room to find him dead from a drug overdose. While searching the room for signs of what killed him Alex finds a suitcase full of money. Instead of reporting it to the police, they decide to dispose of the body and keep the money. Of course it isn’t that easy as Hugo’s criminal associates and also the police come calling. If that wasn’t enough, Alex, David and Juliet start bickering amongst themselves (well, more so than usual) and all that money tests their loyalties to one another. Pretty soon any trust between them is gone and they’re at each other’s throats, both literally and figuratively.

Where most thrillers of this kind offer someone for you to empathize with, the three protagonists are all quite unlikable. In fact, they’re downright amoral, from how casually they decide not to report Hugo’s death and keep the money, to how they dispose of the body (which Boyle doesn’t show but we hear the gruesome sounds). One has to give it up to the talented actors that play the three protagonists for not trying to illicit our sympathies, which would be the traditional thing to do. Instead, we have three unapologetically amoral characters excellent realized by Eccleston, Fox, and McGregor.

They are, in turn, ably supported by Boyle’s slick, confident direction that cribs a bit from Hitchcock and a bit from the Coen brothers (Blood Simple) but has enough of his own emerging, energetic style that he would employ in future films to even greater effect. He and his collaborators, Hodge, Macdonald, along with McGregor would follow up Shallow Grave with an adaptation of Trainspotting (1996), which became an international sensation and whose success subsequently overshadowed their feature film debut. Regardless, Shallow Grave remains a striking debut and a clever thriller that explores the limits of friendship.

Special Features:

The extras-loaded Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is a fantastic upgrade from the bare bones MGM DVD from years ago. There is no artifacting on this top notch transfer, which really shows off the reds and blues in various scenes. The electronica music sounds fantastic on the sound side of things, giving the DTS-HD Master 2.0 channel a nice workout.

There is an audio commentary by director Danny Boyle. He starts off talking about where they got the money for the film and his initial reaction to the screenplay. He was working in television and carried over what he learned on Shallow Grave. Naturally, he talks about the camerawork while also touching upon casting. Basically, he talks about how to make a decent film for a million pounds on this engaging and informative track.

Also included is a commentary by screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald. Hodge cites Blood Simple (1984) and Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989) as cinematic influences on his script. Macdonald recalls meeting the writer and how they both were fans of American independent cinema. Those films inspired him to make Shallow Grave outside the studio system. They also talk about the casting of the lead actors and how Kerry Fox was the most well-known of the three at the time, which helped get it financed.

Actors Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, and Ewan McGregor are interviewed individually and look back at the film, recalling their experiences making it. They all talk about getting involved in the project and their initial impressions of the script. Naturally, they talk about their respective characters and put the film in context of the U.K. socio-economic situation at that time. They all come off as engaging and intelligent as they recount filming anecdotes.

There is a rather amusing video diary by Andrew Macdonald and his brother Kevin done in 1992 while shopping the script for Shallow Grave at the Edinburgh Film Festival. They talk to the likes of director Sam Fuller, actor Robbie Coltrane and various film critics. It seems like everyone wants to see the script or ask what their budget will be. At the end they even manage to get Sean Connery on the phone but nothing comes of it.

“Digging Your Own Grave” is a 30-minute documentary done when the film was released. It takes us inside the production, from raising the money to completion. We see some of the challenges of making a low budget film by a bunch of first-timers.

Also included is a theatrical trailer.

Finally, there is a “Trainspotting teaser,” which was attached to Shallow Grave when it was released on home video and while their next film was still in production. Interestingly, it features footage not in the film.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 90%

Website: http://www.criterion.com/films/27981-shallow-grave


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