The pleasures of Shallow Grave, a stylish black comedy disguised as a bloody thriller, are strewn so playfully about that they feel effortless. The characters, a trio of twentysomethings sharing a roomy flat in Edinburgh, Scotland, are so snotty and amoral that we're never burdened by any pretense of liking them. The plot, a mixture of greed, paranoia and severed limbs, seems to take its own cunning with a grain of salt. And rookie director Danny Boyle parades his affection for such masters as Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski so flagrantly that the movie never stakes any claim of originality.
Amazingly, though, this apparent go-to-hell ease and the apparent refusal to conceal evil motives or powerful influences add up to a highly particular film. I've never seen anything quite like it--but remain astonished to say so.
The roommates are a smug doctor named Juliet (Kerry Fox), an acid-tongued tabloid reporter, Alex (Ewan McGregor), and a tightly wound accountant, David (Christopher Eccleston). Right from the start, we see that they've long since formed a kind of secret society, walled off from the world. They thrive on inside jokes, and when they interrogate prospective occupants of their big apartment's fourth bedroom, the game is full of giddy malice. Outsiders need not apply to the inner sanctum.
Finally, Juliet, Alex and David do choose a fourth, a cool bohemian named Hugo (Keith Allen) who announces that he's writing a novel about dead priests. Before anyone can hear the clack of Hugo's typewriter, though, screenwriter John Hodge (of all things, a doctor in real life) kicks his into high gear. Newcomer Hugo turns up buck naked and stone-cold dead in his bedroom. More curious than horrified, the roommates immediately go through the dead guy's effects and discover the stuff on which plots thicken--a drawer full of drugs and a suitcase stuffed with cash.
What we discover is that director Boyle, a refugee from the BBC and the London stage, has an uncommon sense of humor and a surprising assurance behind the camera. Early comments on Shallow Grave harp on its homage to Hitchcock--indeed, buffs may delight in the little pieces of Psycho, Dial M for Murder and Marnie they find here--but the film doesn't so much scare us as reveal the depths of the human comedy. Faced with a corpse in their flat and the temptation of riches, our little schemers do what they must--struggle to get rid of the body, then start going to town on one another in the ever-closer confinement of the flat.
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In this eventuality, Grave puts you more in mind of Polanski's claustrophobic mind games than Sir Alfred's brand of spine-tingling, but both elements are outranked by Hodge/Boyle's neat comic turn on yuppie acquisitiveness (even though we are in Scotland, not America) and the brilliant psychological trick the movie plays on us. To wit: We're delighted rather than appalled when the symbiotic friendships in the flat begin to crumble. These unlikable twits will get just what they deserve, the audience suspects, and that allows us to start feeling smug. By the time David, a milquetoast transformed into a monster, has secreted himself in the attic, where he spies on the others through holes drilled in the ceiling, the movie's grand old joke has burst into full bloom: The root of all evil is still money. And when the smart-mouthed Alex, easily the most odious of the three, is dispatched by his editor to the site where a dismembered corpse has been found, we're fairly glorying in the irony.
There are more twists and turns and betrayals, of course, all slyly set out by a first-time director who knows his angles and his cutting, how to inflict the jitters and when to inject a touch of graveyard humor. As for fledgling writer Hodge, let's hope he's a more conscientious doctor than the conniving Juliet. Halfway through this, you might be wondering what she's capable of with a pair of forceps or a scalpel clutched in her fist. The very thought's enough to make you cancel your health insurance.
Kerry Fox, who portrayed writer Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, seems to have a lot more fun in Shallow Grave, and Chistopher Eccleston's brooding David can make your skin crawl. As for Ewan McGregor's Alex, he's just the kind of supercilious bloke that's giving the newspaper trade a bad name these days. So when a guy Alex has mocked suddenly smacks him in the mouth, we don't feel too bad about it.
Meanwhile, this wonderfully malicious entertainment delivers a few sucker punches of its own. The best thing about it is the way it ambushes you when you're least expecting it--not with shocks but with dark mirth. Even Hodge, the doctor-turned-screenwriter, gets a piece of that action. He makes his acting as well as his writing debut in the film, as a flat-footed police underling under the thumb of a far more clever superior (Ken Stott). That bleak, seemingly self-deprecating joke suits the tone of the film to perfection: It's pure guile, delivered with a straight face.