Starring: Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston
Rated R for Scenes of Strong Grisly Violence, and for Some Language and Nudity
It's odd how sometimes in Hollywood that there are two versions of the same story with one being awful and the other being great. An example would be "Thelma and Louise," which was lame, and "Set it Off," which was wonderful. I'm not talking about remakes, which are a different breed of animal. I'm talking about stories in general. Given Hollywood's obsession with safe formulas, it's only natural that certain films bear certain similarities with each other, but "Shallow Grave," a 1994 British import, is startlingly similar to the criminally underrated "A Simple Plan," released four years later. While "Shallow Grave" gets all the buzz, anyone who has seen Sam Raimi's thriller will recognize it as a far superior film.
The set-up is simple: three roommates named Alex (McGregor), Juliet (Fox), and David (Eccelston) are looking to fill the fourth room in their flat. This is proving difficult since, to varying degrees, they're all self-centered jerks who ridicule and abuse every applicant. One they like is Hugo (Keith Allen). They invite him to move in, but within days, he's dead of a drug overdose. Much to their delight, he has a sizable amount of cash just sitting there with him. The three decide to keep it for themselves. To do that, they cut up and mutilate his body (to prevent any sort of identification) and bury it. Of course, there's no such thing as the perfect crime. Suspicion, paranoia and good old-fashioned greed rot the characters and their friendship to the point where they turn on each other.
This isn't a new idea, but it is compelling because it appeals to two of our basest human instincts: greed and vanity. Faced with this situation, who wouldn't be tempted to take the money? By watching a movie like this, we can vicariously live through their scheme without any consequences save for watching the trainwreck that happens when the house of cards inevitably collapses.
Of course, that would only be the case if we liked the protagonists. That doesn't happen here. Alex, Juliet and David are impossible to like. They're arrogant and entitled twenty-somethings who are such bastards that we spend the whole movie waiting for their comeuppance. It would try the talents of any actor and director to make this film succeed with characters this despicable. But in addition to being impossible to like, they're boring. A fatal flaw. Unlikable characters are okay as long as they're interesting. These three don't come close.
The performances are weak, considering the talent (not to mention it was a breakout hit for all three). It's impossible to completely write off Ewan McGregor's charm, even in bad movies, but his Alex is a true bastard. Selfish and conniving, he convinces his two friends to give into temptation. Christopher Eccelston plays the obligatory quiet weirdo, but his performance is better than the script deserves. Kerry Fox became a character actress after this, which makes sense considering how boring her character is.
This was the Danny Boyle's first film after coming from a background on TV. It's a little too self-consciously hip and artsy to be effective film-noir or comedy (although he makes attempts at both). It looks good, certainly, but only in a way that further distances us from the characters and the story.
If you're looking for a movie to prove to someone (or to yourself) that crime doesn't pay, watch "A Simple Plan." It's a masterpiece. This is forgettable.