By Tony Schwab, staff writer
The ironically cheery song, playing over scenes of violence and destruction, seems to have been introduced to film by Stanley Kubrick in “Dr. Strangelove,” with the world exploding to “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. He took this a step further in “A Clockwork Orange,” and perhaps even further in “Full Metal Jacket.” Like many Kubrick innovations, it found its way into the work of many directors who rose to prominence in the 90’s. “Layla” playing over a montage of dead bodies in “Goodfellas” and “Stuck in the Middle With You” accompanying the ear-cutting scene in “Reservoir Dogs” stand out as particularly memorable examples.
For sheer mean-spiritedness, Danny Boyle’s debut film “Shallow Grave” may have the single most extreme example of this technique. With Christopher Eccleston dead, Kerry Fox on the run and Ewan McGregor laying stabbed on his living room floor being interviewed by police, Andy Williams’ corny, bombastic “Happy Heart” plays the movie out. It is the perfect ending to one of the most gleefully nihilistic movies ever made.
It is clear from the very beginning of “Shallow Grave” that our three heroes are wicked. Finding themselves in need of a fourth roommate, they stage interviews. Each potential candidate is subjected to a series of torturous questions, with some reduced to tears.
After this the main plot sets in. The lads finally meet someone they like, Hugo, who dies of a drug overdose right after moving in. In his room there is a suitcase full of money. Without a conscience between the three of them, the roommates decide to keep the money and get rid of the body. This dooms them, as it must, but it does so without any sense of a wrong being righted. The movie takes pleasure in the vulgarity of its characters, and it takes equal pleasure in their punishment.
Each of the three is a different kind of evil. McGregor as David is smug and heartless, proud to call himself a hack journalist. Eccleston is a colder kind of creep, acting evil to escape the boredom of an accounting job. Fox is more passive, taking the arrogance of her friends with cold irony, but never protesting.
The film contrasts interestingly with Boyle’s second film, the more famous “Trainspotting.” “Shallow Grave” is more focused in its plotting, but is much less of a technical showcase. Its emotional range is more limited. The characters are always shown to be the same sort of self-interested punks, whether they are confronting their jobs or a dead body. In “Trainspotting,” Boyle shows much more interest in emotional complexity, as Renton goes through the many stages of heroin addiction. All in all, “Trainspotting” is a more complex, layered film, but with its grinning hatred of the world, “Shallow Grave” is full of power.