Revisiting SHALLOW GRAVE: A retrospective film review

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by John Hodge

Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox, Keith Allen, Ken Stott & Colin McCredie

Feature running time: 1 hour and 29 minutes

shallow grave art poster.jpg



After three housemates discover a dead corpse in their flat along with a suitcase full of cash, they decide what would be the best course of action to take – report it to the police or keep all the money for themselves.


It takes maybe the first three or four efforts in the movie making business before a director can really find his/her feet and finally get recognised with film producers and studios when trying to get their foot in the door.

That isn’t so much the case with director Danny Boyle though, who managed to have it all in spades when making his first full-length feature. He knew he struck gold when debuting it at the Cannes Film Festival back in 1995, where the festival organisers had to set up three extra screenings just so they could meet the high demand of both critics and audience film-goers alike.

Amazingly, with the film being shot in just 30 days, not only was this the first feature that Boyle directed, but it also marked as the debut for screenwriter John Hodge and the first feature starring role for Ewan McGregor; to which Boyle and McGregor would re-team up again only two years later for its smash hit follow-up ‘Trainspotting’. Clearly they had such a great partnership working together on Shallow Grave and knowing full well they had such a successful hit on their hands, they definitely couldn’t pass up the  chance working together for a second time.

In my opinion Shallow Grave is the better film out of the two. That would probably be seen as a pretty bold statement by many and I’m not suggesting that Trainspotting isn’t the critically acclaimed masterpiece it has been raved to be because it most undoubtedly is, but the main difference between the two is that Shallow Grave has a premise that really pulls audiences in and makes them question the predicament that the main characters find themselves in. High stakes and tension are raised for our lead characters due to a certain MacGuffin in an unfolding story that Hitchcock would be proud of if he was still alive today. Speaking of Hitchcock, there are many other plot traits that the master of suspense didn’t shy away from in a number of his films that are evident here, these include a multitude of twists, plenty of double crossing, murder, deceit, jealousy and pure greed. Going back to the comparison with Trainspotting, there’s a lot I appreciate in that movie – sucking viewers into the criminal drug trafficking underworld of Scotland, displaying its really dark edged humour and the colourful characters the film focuses on at its core. However, films that feature heavy drug use makes me feel a bit sick and queasy and just seeing the injection of needles just terrifies me. It’s probably the reason why I haven’t been brave enough yet to see other really talked about films like ‘Requiem For a Dream’ where drug abuse is absolutely the most focal point. Therefore, my opinion could be a bit biased when claiming that Shallow Grave is the better film for the reason I just mentioned but I stand by the fact that the story is so much more compelling for me than Trainspotting.

While on the subject of story, this one opens up with three flatmates – Alex (McGregor), David (Eccleston) and Juliet (Fox); all of them with pretty respectable daytime jobs: an office worker, an accountant and a doctor, who are on the look out for a new housemate to join them in their home.  One day when Juliet is home alone, she is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious gentleman known as Hugo (Allen). Instantly winning over first impressions, he is viewed as interesting rather than dull and boring by Juliet and offered the room to let not long afterwards. Having locked himself in his room all day, Alex, David and Juliet force open the door to see if he’s okay. What they didn’t expect to find is his naked dead corpse sprawled over his bed, with a suitcase full of a shitload of cash hidden under his mattress.


Deciding on what to do with all the loot, Alex and Juliet are all for the idea of keeping it for themselves as the temptation is far too great that they just can’t bring themselves to report it straight to the local police and give it all away, while David on the other hand is at first totally against that option, thinking its a sick idea and the wrong thing to do but reluctantly agrees to keep it a secret and remain quiet about the whole affair. Little do they realise at that moment in time though of how much of a massive shit storm of terrible consequences would soon follow in their inevitable decision to keep the money. Not only do they have a couple of suspicious police officers on their trail, but also a couple of gangsters on the hunt for the loot that you sure wouldn’t want to mess with anytime soon, clearly suggesting the suitcase of cash was stolen from them and now they’ll do anything to get it back while punishing the ones responsible for inconveniencing them. And all this starts to take place before David soon descends himself into becoming a deranged, paranoid and isolated number one nut job. Although can you really blame him for going down that route after being made to do most of the work where dismembering the limbs of the dead body and burying it deep in the woods, getting rid of any tracing evidence is concerned? I know I couldn’t. As his paranoia grows more and more severe, he begins to suspect that his other housemates are conspiring against him as he spies down on them from the dark attic that he now dwells most of his time in. This also in turn doesn’t stop him from getting devious in his own warped way when trying to get some answers from Alex at the hand of a power drill.


As David grows more and more out of control, things turn really ugly for the three of them, taking a terrible turn all for the worse. You wonder if any of them will make it out alive as dark secrets that they tried so hard to keep from one another starts to surface, met with even worse results. Its tragic in a way to see three close friends living together slowly becoming deadly enemies as the story unfolds where the money becomes the main object of their desires. What a killer money can be eh?

Still, you can’t help but smile along with McGregor’s Alex when the last big twist of its final climax is revealed, unveiling that he is the one character that was undeniably the most smartest one of the trio, outsmarting them both and coming out as the winner. Naturally, I had to share it with you all as its my favourite scene in the whole movie. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I strongly urge you not to press play. But for everyone else, enjoy re-watching one of the best endings to a crime feature debut ever made.


Couldn’t possibly make any negative points of criticism with this film. Like I mentioned at the start, its remarkable for me to believe that this is a feature-length debut from Boyle, everything about it is solid perfection. Even his father who was so impressed with it, when always asked what he thought of the latest film directed by his son, he would always reply with “it was good, but not as good as ‘Shallow Grave’.”


This film showcases all of Boyle’s visual flair and preferred trademarks that are even more expanded upon in his later future films such as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire. The one film where the biggest similarity it shares with Shallow Grave though is 127 Hours; focusing on a character who has to dismember himself to get out of a perilous and dangerous life or death situation.


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