Saturday, December 17, 2016

Shallow Grave

   When the screenwriters for this movie were looking for a director and met with Danny Boyle, who at that time had only TV credits to his name, the first words out of his mouth were "Blood Simple". Referencing of course the debut movie of Joel and Ethan Coen, another absolutely excellent crime thriller. Even now, more than 20 years after Shallow Grave's release and over 30 years since Blood Simple hit the scene, both movies have maintained their relevance to each other, and both are still fantastic all the way around.

   It's not hard to see where Boyle took inspiration from Blood Simple, but it's just as plain to see the makings of his future films in the details of this one. Same with the Coen brothers and 'Simple. Danny Boyle's movie here is every bit as low down and as nasty as Blood Simple, but their flavor and characters diverge. Shallow Grave was almost titled 'Cruel' instead, and it's no big mystery why. Its a movie populated with characters you're not supposed to like or sympathize with. Terrible things happen to the characters and terrible things happen by their hand.

   This was absolutely by design, and it was a brilliant design at that. Shallow Grave is a merciless little thriller, taut with suspense. Its trio of leads might not be sympathetic, but they are certainly fascinating, as is the dilemma they are faced with. The three of them are looking for a flat mate, and eventually they find one in the "interesting" applicant, Hugo. Unfortunately, he's dead from a drug overdose the morning after moving in. Among his possessions? A suitcase full of money. Aaaand we're off! How many perfectly serviceable thrillers start almost just like this? Tons. But, none quite like this. The idea existed well before Danny Boyle spun it, and has persisted all this long while.

   Movies like Good People, and A Simple Plan riff on the same idea of what would ordinary people do in the same situation. Unlike those movies, Shallow Grave asks instead, what would self-absorbed assholes do in that situation? The results aren't pretty, but isn't that the point? There's a cold and calculating meticulousness to the level of casual thought and planning the trio puts into covering up this death and handling the money, but do these movies ever work out so well for the people with the money? No, never. It's an unspoken and unshakable cinematic rule.

   The uncomfortable tension and colorful stylings propel this little thriller barreling towards a destructive finish. Absent is the eye popping contrast and visual language of the climax in Blood Simple. Danny Boyle refuses to let his movie end on such a stylish note. As all these movies do, the climactic showdown involves a violent altercation, but it's not a slick or well choreographed one. It's brutal, sloppy, messy, rough, and ultimately one of the most honest moments in the whole movie. Of course, the story still has a twist or two in store for the viewer, even when you're sure you know how it's going to conclude.

   Most people love to fantasize about what they'd do if they ever found a suitcase full of money with virtually no strings attached. Shallow Grave skips all the obligatory scenes of tedious money-counting, tallying, dividing, and ecstatic disbelief and cuts a chilling path straight to the bloody finish which will leave you cured of such fantasies. No thank you, I'd rather earn the money myself or just stay broke. If there's anything movies like this teach, it's that suitcases full of money are death incarnate- especially if you have friends.

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