The Scottish film Shallow Grave is an imaginative little noir thriller with a lively, grisly wit. Like Miami Rhapsody, the film is full of more or less open references to other movies in its genre--Brian DePalma's Body Double and Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, most notably.
But unlike director David Frankel's act of Woody Allen worship, Shallow Grave has a funky life all its own.
Working from a script by John Hodge (who has a brief, amusing bit as a deadpan detective), young director Danny Boyle has made the first murder thriller I've seen to explore a rich vein of material--the modern-urban-living arrangement of the co-ed "group house." (The atrocious Single White Female doesn't count, because it involved only two roomies, both of them female.) Boyle makes use of the tensions, sexual and otherwise, involved in these cohabitations as a fresh, hip kind of psychological background for a thriller plot--it's Threesome plus blood.
Three attractive young Glasgow professionals--a female doctor, a male journalist and a male chartered accountant--are looking for a fourth housemate. Shortly after the fellow they settle on takes occupancy of his room, the three find him in it, dead of an overdose. They also find a suitcase full of money, and since no one can connect them to the new guy--or so they think--they decide to dispose of his body, gruesomely, and keep the suitcase for themselves. To tell more than this would be to tell too much, but suffice to say that the roomies, fast friends until then, would have done well to check out The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for a lesson in the dangers of shared loot.
Boyle's pacing and compositions are stately, and while the film is often grimly funny, it's never a spoof. As with Scorsese and DePalma's better work, there's real human weight to the horror. The film is a hair too long--though Boyle and Hodge manage to pull all of their dropped clues together in the final twist, which is a satisfying payoff, they do it just in the nick of time. Another few minutes and we'd begin to tune out. I'd also like to see a noir director present a female lead as something other than a manipulative bitch. What made The Last Seduction so enjoyable in spite of its inadequate script was that Linda Fiorentino's approach to her femme fatale role was so bracingly unambiguous, so matter-of-fact, so lacking in coyness, so plausible. In Shallow Grave, Kerry Fox has a fascinating, weird sensuality, but she sure doesn't seem like a doctor.
Still, Shallow Grave is an impressive piece of work. Boyle transcends, emotionally, the mechanics of the thriller form--he makes us care about these three, and makes us hate to see them at each other's throats.--
Shallow Grave: Directed by Danny Boyle; with Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Iwan McGregor. Rated