There’s a guaranteed audience these days for the “sophisticated thriller.” In genrespeak, that’s the movie with a self-consciously twisting and turning plotline, overtly intelligent characters, and a calculated streak of nastiness allowing the viewer to feel truly decadent, giggling along with the filmmakers. Shallow Grave is such a movie, a British import about a trio of flatmates who conspire against their own better judgment to take advantage of someone else’s ill-gotten gains. When I saw it, with a “sophisticated” crowd on Manhattan’s upper west side, the folks to the left and right of me were swept up in the movie, cackling evilly or burying faces in hands when the proceedings on-screen became particularly gruesome. No doubt about it, this movie is a manipulator and a crowd pleaser.
Incredibly, some trendy reviewers have been comparing Shallow Grave to Quentin Tarantino’s films, as though the director of Pulp Fiction somehow invented the stylish thriller. Rubbish. Shallow Grave owes its existence pretty much in its entirety to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which it apes shamelessly. It’s a canny imitation, and the director has done enough homework to know what kind of homage works and what’s just stupid (the movie is fiercely intelligent). But intelligence alone doesn’t completely compensate for Shallow Grave‘s shortcomings. Perhaps overconfidence leads this film to count on its audience being so delighted by each new odd camera angle and unexpected revelation that it becomes lazy in terms of showing us anything truly surprising.
The film opens with a crazy high-speed tour of city streets, set to a thumping high energy soundtrack. It resembles nothing so much as Shinya Tsukamoto’s cautionary horror fable Tetsuo, and it’s hard to understand why the film takes such a hyperkinetic approach during its opening credits. Things slow down from there, as we settle in for a study of three characters sharing an apartment — Alex (Ewan McGregor), David (Christopher Eccleston), and Juliet (Kerry Fox). The casual cruelty of these characters is established immediately, as they interview and humiliate potential roommates. Alex is the most outgoing of the three, with the loosest tongue. David is shy and retreating, while the smart and sensible Juliet (whose boyfriend is conspicuously absent) functions as the apex of a very repressed sexual triangle. They finally settle on a strange fellow named Hugo (Keith Allen), an apparently well-off writer who pays his first rent in cash. But soon, Hugo is a corpse, and the suitcase of money he leaves behind in his bedroom is too much of a temptation. What if, Alex wants to know, the three of them dispose of the body and keep the money?
That’s probably the first 10 minutes. The rest of the movie springs out of that proposition, as the situation becomes more and more precarious and the riches bring out the worst in everybody. The ensuing shenanigans are both intense and wickedly funny, and it wouldn’t do to spoil them here. It’s very easy to place yourself in these roles, and the triumph of any thriller is that the audience feels the fear and isolation of the characters. But while one character’s complete transformation is essential to the storyline, it’s wholly unbelievable. The sexual dynamics (which pivot on Juliet’s status as an object of desire) are intriguing and well-handled, but Boyle’s relentless homage to Hitchcock (odd camera angles, snickering gallows humor, and shots lifted wholesale from Vertigo and Psycho) wears thin. It’s more than a little disappointing when the credits finally roll, because we hope for more from this clever thriller. But perhaps it’s to the director’s credit that we really do want to spend more time with these rather unpleasant people, feeding ravenously, vicariously off of their actions.