WHAT IS IT with all these films based on suitcases full of money? Pulp Fiction had one (though Tarantino playfully denied us knowledge of the exact contents), Red Rock West had one (with, as usual, a gun hidden inside), and now there's Shallow Grave, which has its own clever way with luggage. Call me violent, but if I see one more movie centered around a suitcase full of dough, I'm going to blow up the Samsonite building.
To be fair, there's a long-standing tradition of films based on caches of cash. The premise allows filmmakers to bypass character motivation and cut right to the juicy stuff: suspense, mystery, double-crossing. A classic example is Jean-Pierre Melville's 1961 film Le Doulos, where two men's scheme to steal and hide a bag of jewels keeps you guessing about questions of loyalty and intention right up to the very end.
Shallow Grave eventually succumbs to that sort of game-playing, too, but the film has a few elements of originality to call its own. The key players are best friends and roommates who are looking for a fourth person to share their spacious apartment in Glasgow, Scotland. What's amusing about the trio is their youthful snobbery: they make fun of uncool applicants to their faces and joyfully foster an insular mentality, bonding together against the normalcy of the outside world. In short, they're precisely the sort of irreverent, style-conscious yuppies who might be turned on by a movie like Shallow Grave.
When their brand-new roommate, a discreet, mysterious fellow named Hugo, is found dead in his bedroom with a suitcase full of you-know-what, the trio's distinctions surface: Alex (Ewan McGregor) is an impulsive risk-taker who immediately wants to keep the loot and hide the body; Juliet (Kerry Fox) is similarly inclined, though she's quieter about it; and the bespectacled David (Christopher Eccleston) is the least impulsive. For days, the body lies decaying in the bedroom, until finally he agrees to the plan.
That's where the narrative takes off, with the three roommates meticulously disposing of the body and hiding their loot until a later date. From here, Shallow Grave becomes an exercise in tension, as Alex and Juliet find themselves overwhelmed by their temptation to spend the money while David, who lost a drawing and had to chop off the body's hands and feet, starts to lose his sanity, cocooning himself in the attic. Meanwhile, some particularly brutal gangsters are catching on to the threesome, and there's no telling when they might show up.
Insofar as the picture's intent is to twist your nerves into a knot, Shallow Grave succeeds. A person who seems to have something important to say will be interrupted by the other two, and we're left with the insecure feeling of never knowing what was going to be said. Foreshadowing also abounds, as characters playfully do things to each other that will be mirrored during not-so-playful moments later in the film.
Many of the suspense tactics are seasoned with a wry comic spin. At one point, David's accountant boss commends him because he "gets the job done," a phrase that becomes all too true as the movie progresses. Better yet is the moment when Alex, a tabloid journalist, is enlisted by his editor to cover the discovery of the body out in the woods. A nice touch, even if it doesn't lead anywhere.
The movie's studious building of tension plays well until Shallow Grave starts dipping into Le Doulos territory, trying to turn the characters against each other and make us guess who's on whose side. At this point the picture fumbles badly, sketching out an incoherent scheme of cross-motivations that don't have any foundation. (And you can't help but wonder why such apparently smart people couldn't just sit down and agree to split the money three-ways. It would solve everything.)
Part of the problem is that the director, Danny Boyle, puts vastly more energy into developing a color scheme than into further developing his characters. The interiors of the flat, where most of the movie takes place, are rendered in a seductive array of primary colors: bright red, deep blue, glowing green. One is inclined to search for some sort of color-coded meaning--after all, it can't be mere coincidence that the green-and-yellow decoration of the living room strikes the eye in the same way as the appearance of the green forest (where the body was buried) when wrapped with yellow police tape. With so little to go by, you can't help noticing such similarities and hoping the emphasis on color will add up to something.
In a shallow sort of way, it does. Boyle sets things up so that by the time Shallow Grave reaches its conclusion, there is an expectation that one of the three characters will have won the loot. Yet in traditional moral terms, there is absolutely no reason why we should root for any of them. In this film's strange ethical universe, however, the triumphant person is not he or she who has shown the most integrity or intelligence. I won't give the winner away, but here's a hint: it's the one who has worn the most colors.
Shallow Grave is playing at Catalina (8810616) and Century Gateway (792-9000) cinemas.
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