Shallow Grave is a prime example of how a director and an ensemble can turn a merely good screenplay into a just-about excellent movie. For those budding filmmakers and actors who despair at the fact that they don’t have that much liberty in deciding which scripts they’ll film, here’s a useful lesson in how to make a narrative your own. John Hodge’s script is slick and straightforward, in and out in ninety-one pages, yet somewhat too Beckettesque for its own good. Minimalism has an appeal to playwrights and screenwriters in that it gives actors the room to do their work—most of the work, in fact—and it lowers the risk of the writers’ egos worming their way into the texts. The script truly becomes the skeleton on which the rest of the body functions. Yet, there is a distinction between being minimalist and being threadbare, and some of the characters and dialogue on paper feel lazy insomuch that an actor would be vindicated in feeling (s)he was left to do too much work. And when the script does leave minimalism alone and try to inject some creativity into the proceedings, there are snatches of dialogue that seem so literary, it turns jarring and unnatural for talk—particularly for the talk of the Scottish middle-crust lowlifes at the center of this story. So the script is too simple, and even in that respect, it’s inconsistent.
Thank God it was Danny Boyle and not someone as uncompromising as me who saw the potential in this script and ran with it. Nothing in Hodge’s rapid-fire, slender prose can prepare a reader for Boyle’s trademark visual flair, which seems to have already matured by the time he made this film—his debut. The vision of the auteur who would go on to make Slumdog Millionaire was already well developed here, at once driven and focused, chaotic and under control—which is to say, the narrative is chaos, but the perception of it is control. The opening minutes make this abundantly clear. After a brief voice-over soliloquy, a main theme by Leftfield kicks in, and the camera sends us hurtling through the cobblestone roads of Scotland and up the spiral steps to the flat in which the three main characters live. Read the script’s first page, then watch the film’s first couple of minutes. The first is an introduction; the second is a hook. It’s exhilarating. Boyle’s sense of place is firm and kinetic. The script makes the flat feel like a rundown rental that one might find in a retirement community. In the film, it’s the stable residence of a trio of well-off laborers and good friends—one an accountant, one a journalist, one a nurse—and full of details on which the narrative hinges: the primary colors, the transom above a critical room, the tall ladder stretching into the loft. The normalcy and pleasantness of the space makes the story’s tragedy and its central trio’s downfall all the more palpable, descending from way up high and landing hard.
David (Christopher Eccleston) is the accountant, Alex (Ewan McGregor) is the reporter and Juliet (Kerry Fox) is the nurse. They’re looking for a fourth roommate, or are they? They treat the process of searching for a new flat-mate as a joke, a test designed to be impossible to pass, to make those who take it feel foolish. They invite prospects in, trick them into getting comfortable, and then barrage them with ludicrous inquiries and offensive insinuations. We see this in a snappy montage. Script and film alike treat this early scene as pitch-black comedy—showcasing three friends with the same mordant, self-deprecating sense of humor, who get off on alienating everyone around them, and perhaps too each other. The script seems to remain in the vein of crime comedy à la Snatch, treating everything as a madcap maelstrom into the gallows and aiming to surprise us with how insane, irredeemable and out of their depth these characters become. Boyle knows better. He deceives us with the comedy of the opening minutes, then transitions by turns into moral drama, high-stakes psycho-thriller, and ruthless Greek tragedy. A writer named Hugo (Keith Allen) shows up, and the gang actually takes a liking to him and grants him the extra room. Hardly any time passes before he is found naked and dead of a drug overdose (suicide or accident?) with a trunk full of cash under the bed—and it’s downhill from there.
Oddly and ironically enough, McGregor and Fox’s performances don’t expand from the script as much as they let the dialogue rumble through their mouths and bodies. The subtleties in the language—the farcical misunderstandings, the near-slips of tongue—often appear to go unnoticed by character and actor alike, and the ludicrous scenario that develops feels more present and immediate because of it. The Scottish accent often does a lot of the work. Neither screenplay nor actors overcompensate for each other, and this is to the advantage of both. Casting here is more crucial than acting, which is all the better to allow McGregor to flesh out Alex’s sneering assholery and Fox to inhabit Juliet’s downplayed, cool bonhomie. The most challenging role belongs to Eccleston (now a fixture on HBO’s The Leftovers). In the script, David as a character feels cluttered, joining in on his friends’ ostensible roommate vetting, then demonstrating himself as a stubborn workaholic and a man with deep pangs of conscience, before finally revealing himself as a haunting and rigid figure of willpower, cruel and disturbing. Eccleston solves this issue by layering him, depicting him first as an unknown and private man, passionate about his job and in the background, with something dangerous and evil lurking deep in his subconscious that he’d rather not unleash, for the sake of everyone around him. Only it is unleashed, and once it is…oh boy. As for the other actors, Allen is so good in his scant time on-screen that I wanted more of him, and Ken Stott provides a center of classic British moral gravity late in the film, in a small but crucial role.
There’s much about the story I’m not giving away, and you’ll thank me for that. Seeing the film before reading the script may have made the story’s pivotal shocks more jarring, but the experience was no less organic and no less harrowing. The traditional tropes of good people turned bad by money and of good friends turned enemies by money are well worn out. Shallow Grave is almost how Beckett—and for that matter his protégé Pinter—might have spun such tropes. As the narrative deepens, the characters grow more complex, every gesture they commit and every word they utter a layer cake of lies, impregnable intentions, secret motivations, and leering intrigue. They all want the money. They all want as much of the money as possible. They’re willing to do grave things to grab it. They don’t trust each other. Things come to a head; no one wins; everyone is screwed. The script’s conclusion wraps the matter up too hastily. Fortunately, in the film, it feels slowed down, the three actors engaging in a patient Mexican standoff of words, lies, insults, retreats, wheedles, cons and intimidations before exploding into violent outbursts. I’ll have to watch this film again to trace all of the layers under the surface of David, Alex and Juliet. Who are these enigmatic people? What do they want? How do they aim to get it? How does such a great friendship as the one they have fall apart so horribly? It takes a great film to make us ask questions like this—questions about the very fundaments of narrative and life. Shallow Grave is great.