There are several complimentary things you can say about Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave, and the fact that this devious and wonderfully quick flick was the man's first feature only serves to underline the praise. Mr. Boyle had ample stage and small-screen experience when he tackled his first film, which might explain why Shallow Grave is such a crisp, efficient movie, but here's the best part: it's not every day you revisit a thriller from 1994 and it somehow feels as fresh as it did 18 years ago. Proof positive that "first-timers" can and should deliver fantastic work, Shallow Grave is, quite simply, a "white-knuckle, cracker-jack, noose-tightening, etc." piece of neo-noir / dark thriller that starts out simple, but quickly blossoms into something rather fascinating.
We open with three very chummy, but very different best pal/roommates who are "auditioning" people to step in as their fourth. Glib, smug, and inside-jokey in a fascinatingly familiar way, Juliet (Kerry Fox), Alex (Ewan McGregor), and David (Christopher Eccleston) are wildly different people, but since they're already an established "clique" when Shallow Grave opens, the canny screenplay and the three leads have no problem selling us on the oddly chummy trio of demanding wankers. They're mostly unlikable, but the three leads still find small nuggets of familiar humanity in their mostly insufferable character, and that's what makes the "film noir / dark thriller" stuff work so darn well.
Juliet, Alex, and David, you see, have decided on their fourth roommate, and (in a clever screenwriting hook) it sure seems like they've chosen poorly. Newcomer Hugo (Keith Allen) overdoses on drugs less than a week after moving in, and that leaves our three protagonists to deal with the problem. Why not call the police? Because their new roommate's corpse has a huge bag of cash nearby -- and Juliet, Alex and David want that money. But, as usual (especially in cool crime films) nothing is ever that easy. There's a body to get rid of, a few policemen to placate, and (oh yes) a pair of brutally vicious drug dealers who really want their cash back -- and we know it's only a matter of time before they've traced it back to Juliet, Alex, and David.
Let's just say that these three friends go from cocky to concerned to mortally freaking terrified as Shallow Grave glides through its efficient 90-minute frame, and to those who know Danny Boyle mainly from films like 28 Days Later or Slumdog Millionaire, well, you're in for a treat. Shallow Grave is as slick and confident a debut feature as you're ever likely to come across, and (along with screenwriter John Hodge) Mr. Boyle seems to be having a great time sampling Hitchcock, film noir, and his own devilish sensibilities as he puts his three central jerks through the emotional wringer. Eccleston has most of the heavy lifting, as his character transforms from meek to malicious in 90 quick minutes, but Kerry Fox brings a steely command to her character, and young Ewan McGregor offers just a sampling of the vibrant actor we've come to love. As a unit they're a formidable force, but when Shallow Grave focuses on each of the trio on an individual basis (especially when the cops get involved), that's when each actor gets to shine.
Ultimately Shallow Grave is just another "bag of money" thriller, which is why the three leads and a consistently clever screenplay are the highlights here. There's no "old" story that cannot be made new again, provided you have some creative filmmakers who know how to hire talented people. Danny Boyle has gone on to much bigger, fancier, and Oscar-friendly films, but Shallow Grave still feels like one of his best movies. Everything from the strangely odd Scottish setting to the brilliant production design on the (frankly awesome) apartment shared by the three thieves, there's a palpable air of low-budget quality control that allows Shallow Grave to "pop" just like it did back in 1994.
Icing on the cake: Shallow Grave is now available through the Criterion Collection, which means we're offered two commentaries (one with Boyle, the other with Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald), a fantastic 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary (directed by eventual Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald), some brand-new interviews with the three lead actors, and a few old-school treats that the movie nuts of the film will certainly enjoy. I've said it before: the Criterion blu-ray might cost a few more bucks than a normal release, but there's no denying that you're getting some real quality. Fans of Shallow Grave won't need to upgrade this blu-ray anytime soon, or ever.