In the United States, 1990s cinema is often defined by the mainstream rise of independent films. Once an underground phenomenon, with the help of Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival, working against the system, away from big budgets and corporate oversight became the norm and helped create the most coveted types of movies for audiences. Indie directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, and most notably, Quentin Tarantino emerged as stars with distinct visions. Tarantino, specifically, inspired a generation of aspiring filmmakers to pick up a camera and flourish their unique voice and break all the preconceived filmmaking rules in the process. Great Britain was also experiencing an indie boom of its own at that time, thanks to the groundbreaking cinematic voice of Danny Boyle and his directorial debut, Shallow Grave.
The British Cinematic Sensation of Danny Boyle
Overseas, a maverick director was following a similar trajectory of the American Sundance darlings. Hailing from Radcliffe, United Kingdom, Danny Boyle emerged from the theater world and was set to revive British cinema with the same lively and inspiring filmmaking attributed to American independent movies. By the time his second film, Trainspotting, arrived and immediately became a sensation, Boyle was the voice of a new generation. The director’s announcement as one of the most accomplished British filmmakers (Trainspotting was quickly added to the Top 10 of the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest British Films of All Time) along with the likes of David Lean and Michael Powell starts with his debut feature in 1994, Shallow Grave. To complete the analogy, if Trainspotting is Boyle’s Pulp Fiction, then Shallow Grave is his Reservoir Dogs.
What Is ‘Shallow Grave’ About?
Danny Boyle’s directorial debut is a crime thriller — a genre familiar to indie sensibilities in America. The story centers around a trio of flatmates who accept a fourth tenant in their flat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Shortly afterward, the three, David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox), and Alex (Ewan McGregor, in a debut starring role), find Hugo (Keith Allen), the new roommate, dead in his room from an apparent drug overdose. In Hugo’s wake is a suitcase filled with money. They agree to conceal Hugo’s death and keep the money for themselves. A pair of criminal enforcers are in a violent search of the money, and the police slowly begin to suspect foul play among the flatmates. Paranoia, betrayal, and mayhem ensue as a result.
‘Shallow Grave’ Has an Unwavering Indie Attitude
Shallow Grave features an unmistakable indie aesthetic that supplies the creative charm of some of the most beloved American independent films of the ’90s. There is an artistic intimacy between the cast and the filmmaking team. Boyle’s close relationships with McGregor and screenwriter John Hodge are evident in his collaboration with them for his next two films. The film evokes a genuine sense of fulfilling a passion project with friends — like forming a rock band in your garage. Working on a tight budget, Boyle and the production crew were forced to sell off props and other pieces of set design to afford sufficient film stock. These anecdotes fuel the creative aspiration that indie films provide to film students and the public, and they are packaged into the legend-making of how directors broke into the business down the line.
In context to the background of the film’s production, the DIY attitude behind the craft of Shallow Grave is quite admirable. Comparable to the groundbreaking stylized touches that Tarantino displayed in the ’90s, Boyle’s direction makes the average studio picture seem stale. The film’s innovative shot composition is fabricated into the tone of the story. The opening credits shot creates the effect of being attached to the hood of a car or motorcycle. It reminds audiences of the fast-paced, frantic POV shots used by Sam Raimi in his early work. Boyle makes any uninteresting establishing shot a piece of cinematic spectacle, including zoom-ins up a flight of stairs or the panning of a ballroom. The camera rarely sits still, and viewers have a palpable sense of the run-and-gun creativity being churned out. These instances of athletic filmmaking are not gratuitous by any stretch. They complement the intensified kinetic energy that occupies the characters, especially when they become complicit in a criminal scheme.
The film is preferential to an unsystematic editing approach, as it relies more on being an active storytelling device rather than being unobtrusive. The rapid-paced editing often defies any textbook standard of cutting, but it works on a primal level and satisfies the independent spirit of the film. In the same boat as his American indie counterparts, Shallow Grave is complemented by a vibrant soundtrack filled with off-kilter pop music selection mixed with an original score by Simon Boswell. The eclectic curated soundtrack plays into the emotion in one scene but will flip the tables and play something contradictory in another scene. The narrative centers around irredeemable figures such as David, Juliet, and Alex are indebted to the grungy, unglamorous storytelling integral to indie filmmaking. The clichéd, perhaps cop-out approach to dealing with these mischievous characters, is to implant a source of justification for taking the money. These people are well-off, white-collar urbanites with fashionable careers. It was pure greed that drove them to such chaos and paranoia.
‘Shallow Grave’ Blends Low and High Art
Quentin Tarantino is rightfully credited for seamlessly meshing high and low art together into a unique concoction. His equal appreciation for the French New Wave and Kung-Fu movies paved the way for the Tarantino brand. Danny Boyle, who established a fruitful career directing genre exercises in Sunshine and Award-winning prestige dramas in Slumdog Millionaire, walks the fine line between pulpy B-movie sensibilities and Shakespearean character drama in Shallow Grave. The film is comfortable working as a thriller and psychological examination of punk rock aggression set against an affluent neighborhood.
Danny Boyle is not afraid of the grimy element of his Hitchcockian thriller, but there is enough elegance in his resound craft of the film to elevate the stakes of the story. The collision of high and low art manifests itself in the framework of the narrative. Having these three characters, who are accountants, physicians, and journalists, be put through the wringer of dismembering a corpse is a rich thematic device. This speaks to repressed sociopathic tendencies among an uppity class of people.
‘Shallow Grave’ Ending Explained
The ending to Shallow Grave, which stays true to its distinct thematic style, is worthy of a close look. The film opens with a preamble about friendship narrated by David. He assuredly states that friendship matters more than anything else, as the camera spins on an axis staring directly at his face. David has a blank look in his eyes, almost as if he is now a corpse. In the film’s climax, as the three betray each other over the money, Juliet stabs David in the back with a knife, slaying him. The film returns to the opening shot, with David’s face appearing quite pale. It is revealed that this narration track is David speaking from the dead. With Alex left skewered to the floor with a knife, and Juliet fleeing via airplane, he states “Oh yes, I believe in friends. I believe we need them. But if, one day, you find that you just can’t trust them anymore, well, what then? What then?” His body is subsequently slid into a drawer in the morgue.
Considering that we last see Alex bleeding profusely, common logic would suggest that he would be dead as well. However, Alex has a peculiar grin on his face as the police arrive at the crime scene. The next shot then shows the bloody knife that cut through the floor. Right below Alex is the remaining bundles of cash, as the blood from the knife drips onto them. It is a masterful shot that exhibits the violent consequences of greed. Regarding the aftermath of the climactic sequence, is Alex dead? Is he alive? If so, why aren’t the police aiding him by stopping the bleeding? No matter the fate of Alex, the ending concludes that, in this film, greed wins. The money will end up in Alex’s possession in this life or the afterlife. An ambiguous ending of morally corrupt figures is all in the stylistic brand of Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle, and independent cinema.