Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”


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.

Grade: A

Review and Script Analysis: “Shallow Grave”

Review: “Steve Jobs” (With Some Thoughts on the Sorry State of Hollywood Prestige Pics)

There’s something to be said for films with a tripartite structure. So far this fall season, we’ve had two films (there could easily be more), both about real-life figures of varying degrees of infamy, which have condensed their subjects’ epic and storied lives into three neat and tidy acts. Incidentally, both films are in the Oscar discussion, with their leading men getting particular attention. The first is Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, in which Johnny Depp is Whitey Bulger, the thug who ruled the South Boston crime world in the 1970s and ‘80s, became an FBI informant in return for virtual immunity, vanished for sixteen years, and is now an old man in prison. The film focuses on Bulger’s rally against the Italian mob in the mid-‘70s, his involvement with jai alai in the early ‘80s, and the collapse of his deal with the FBI in the mid-‘80s. Depp is great, but everything else is mediocre. You can tell that just from the total lack of focus in my summary. The second is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which centers itself on three of the late tech demigod’s most critical product launches—the Mac in ’84, the disastrous Black Cube in ’88, and the iMac in ’98. It is even more mediocre. The trilogy, the division of a narrative into three, has done plenty for the arts since its inception in ancient Greece, but its execution in both of these films is just further emphasis of the biopic’s essential futility—the inadequacy of cinema to capture an entire life. Rather than try to tell one story, Cooper and Boyle aim to tell three. In struggling to compromise the proteus of life with the pithiness of cinema, they do little more than reiterate the unwieldiness of most biopics.

You’ll find that I often use these film reviews as jumping-off points for broader, first-draft, stream-of-consciousness thoughts that I have about cinema at large—and, when appropriate, about life at large. So let me say this: American cinema is currently in its deadball era. It’s obvious that Hollywood has been corporatized. At the same time, I imagine, Hollywood knows that if all they’re doling out to the masses is franchise crap, no one will take them seriously, and the indie studios—Megan Ellison and the like—will catch up to them. So, to remain respectable, around this time every year, they turn out the usual mediocre Oscar fodder—the obligatory biopics, the obligatory novel/stage adaptations, the obligatory veteran career cappers, the obligatory timely issue dramas, the obligatory prestige pics. Boilerplate, most of it. There’s art, and then there’s what Hollywood is comfortable passing off as art when Oscar season calls for it—namely, the efforts of our contemporary celebrity culture to achieve the level of art, which—given its ostentation, its severe bias, its undisciplined naïveté, its addiction to melodrama and cliché, and its perpetual snark—it rarely if ever does. (Stuff like Charlize Theron in Monster is more the exception than the norm, which is part of why it’s so legendary.) Film buffs and critics learn very quickly to not trust the Oscars or any other awards. They can be a useful way of introducing oneself to other breeds of cinema, and it’s always exciting when a foreign film breaks into the mainstream—as I’m hoping Son of Saul will do this awards season—but that’s it. For true art, I typically look elsewhere.

This is not to say that Steve Jobs is a failure, or even bad. (That is the film I want to focus on right now. The consensus of critics has covered most of Black Mass’ flaws, while Jobs remains lauded and can take the challenge.) The first act is as rousing as anything Boyle and his screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have ever done. There’s a central conflict—Jobs and company’s race against time to get the Macintosh to say “hello” to the audience despite numerous tech glitches—and thus, there’s focus. All the other backstage dramas—Chrisann Brennan’s staunch efforts to get Jobs to recognize that he is the father of her daughter Lisa, Steve Wozniak’s desire to have Jobs acknowledge the Apple II team in his remarks, the mystery of Jobs’ own absent father—are peripheral. They exist to intensify and interfere with what’s in the center. There is a single narrative that would more than suffice for a biopic about a man of such stature and hubris, and it’s beautiful. Boyle’s visual flair and Sorkin’s gift of gab are in top form and work together in great harmony for forty solid minutes. To the extent that the performances are great, the most interesting acting, to me, came not from Michael Fassbender as Jobs, terrific as he is, but from Kate Winslet as his Polish publicist, Joanna Hoffman. Hoffman’s relationship with Jobs is professional; she constructs Jobs’ image so that it is marketable, and she advises Jobs on how he can contribute to that. Yet, with someone as arrogant as Jobs who denies that he is Lisa’s father in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hoffman’s task often involves counseling him on the most sensitive issues and becoming his confidante. And since Jobs is an alienating asshat, she is the only one who can do it. The confusion of the personal with the professional—how man’s flaws manifest in the business sphere—strikes me as a key theme of Jobs’ life, and Winslet navigates it expertly, tackling touchy issues with a sturdy demeanor, a sincere perspective and little sentiment. Granted, her Polish accent is a hot mess.

After that honey of a first act, things go haywire. Boyle and Sorkin try to fit parallels into all three acts, a stab at art that comes off as contrived and theatrical to a fault. The way it’s played out, the supporting characters seem to think that the minutes before a product launch are a perfect time to make demands of Jobs and rehash old grudges with him. In ’88, Brennan (Katherine Waterston) comes back to ask for more money, “Woz” (Seth Rogen) comes back to belittle Jobs and his Black Cube, and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) confronts Jobs about how he’s portraying his acrimonious departure from Apple to the media—minutes before he’s to go on stage to introduce the Black Cube! How convenient! Is this how it occurred in real life? I doubt it. The end result is that these characters come off more as specters haunting Jobs at crucial, preordained turning points in his career than as actual real-life people. What this all really is of course is Sorkin’s awkward way of cramming exposition into his three-act chamber drama where a different structure would work better. What’s more, in an attempt to adapt to Boyle’s storytelling style, Sorkin inserts a series of jarring flashbacks that reveal critical information way too late in the story, and that turn Boyle’s deft temporal maneuvers excessive. (Most of these are in the scenes between Jobs and Sculley.) It all leads up to the climactic moment in ’98 when Jobs and a now-coed Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) have their grand reconciliation, years in the making, on the rooftop of a convention center, while Hoffman stands on the sidelines screaming at Jobs because he’s running uncharacteristically late for the launch. You see, here, Hoffman is reduced to a trite plot device that forces Lisa to forgive her father quicker. Real life isn’t that quick, and cinema shouldn’t be, either.

I’m being tough on Boyle and Sorkin because I know them better than this and expected more from their auspicious collaboration than merely competent awards bait, made primarily to make up for Ashton Kutcher’s crock. Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a masterpiece, well above its awards. So is Sorkin’s The Social Network, another ambitious biopic told as a fictional interpretation of real events and people, which succeeds not least because it functions as a single, streamlined narrative. That film, ironically, was trounced at the Oscars by another stuffy, merely respectable piece of bait—The King’s Speech—and it’s a bummer that I end up acting so bitter towards such films because they’re not half-bad. They’re just mediocre, and they ought not pass for art when there are films on the caliber of Victoria playing in multiplexes that, come awards time, will be ignored because they’re too foreign and too daring, even though they put Steve Jobs and its ilk to shame. There’s still some entertainment value here. (Sorkin’s dialogue, even at its most grating, can be very superficially entertaining.) There’s the argument that spills out when Woz confronts Jobs—again, in ’98—over his choice refusal to cite the Apple II team. There’s the revelation of Jobs’ father, and an insightful discussion on the public image of Alan Turing. I haven’t even mentioned Michael Stuhlbarg, astonishing as Andy Hertzfeld, who gets the brunt of Jobs’ cruel treatment, and who we see in ’98 as a tragic, shabby, reduced figure—balding and schlepping around much weight—whose secret friendship with Lisa forces him to a critical moral decision. Stuhlbarg is a close second to Winslet because of the scene in which we learn that decision. This could’ve been a great film. But Sorkin just had to chop it up into three acts, and that sunk it.

Grade: B-

Review: “Steve Jobs” (With Some Thoughts on the Sorry State of Hollywood Prestige Pics)