Danny Boyle’s debut thriller rivals ’90s American indie films

In the United States, 1990s cinema is often marked by the mainstream rise of independent films. Once an underground phenomenon, working against the system, away from big budgets and corporate oversight, with the help of Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival, became the norm and helped create the most desirable types of films for audiences. Indie directors like Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Wes Andersonand especially, Quentin Tarantino emerged as stars with clear visions. Tarantino, in particular, inspired a generation of aspiring filmmakers to take up the camera and express their unique voice while breaking all the preconceived rules of filmmaking. The UK was also enjoying its own indie boom at the time, thanks to the groundbreaking cinematic voice of Danny Boyle and his directorial debut, Shallow Grave.

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The British film sensation by Danny Boyle

Ewan McGregor as Mark/Narrator in Trainspotting
Image via PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Abroad, an idiosyncratic director followed a path similar to that of the American Sundance darlings. Born in Radcliffe, UK, Danny Boyle came from the theater world and would revitalize British cinema with the same vibrant and inspiring cinematic artistry attributed to American independent films. When his second film came out train spottingWhen he arrived and became an instant sensation, Boyle was the voice of a new generation. The director’s announcement as one of Britain’s most successful filmmakers (train spotting was quickly included in the British Film Institute’s top 10 The 100 Greatest British Films of All Time) along with the like David Lean And Michael Powell begins with his debut film in 1994, Shallow Grave. To complete the analogy, if train spotting is Boyles pulp FictionThen Shallow Grave is his Reservoir Dogs.

What is Shallow Grave about?

Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox in Shallow Grave
Image via Rank Film Distributors

Danny Boyle’s directorial debut is a crime thriller – a genre familiar to indie fans in America. The story revolves around a trio of housemates who take in a fourth tenant in their flat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Shortly thereafter, the three met David (Christopher Eccleston), Julia (Kerry Fox) and Alex (Ewan McGregorin a first leading role), see Hugo (Keith Allen), the new roommate, died in his room of an apparent drug overdose. In Hugo’s wake is a suitcase full of money. They agree to keep Hugo’s death a secret and keep the money for themselves. Two detectives are looking for the money and the police slowly begin to suspect a crime between the roommates. The result is paranoia, betrayal and chaos.

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“Shallow Grave” has an unwavering indie attitude

Ewan McGregor in Shallow Grave
Image via Rank Film Distributors

Shallow Grave has an unmistakably indie aesthetic that conveys the creative charm of some of America’s most popular independent films of the ’90s. There is an artistic intimacy between the cast and the filmmaking team. Boyle’s close ties to McGregor and the screenwriter John Hodge are evident in his collaboration with them for his next two films. The film evokes the real feeling of realizing a passionate project with friends – like starting a rock band in the garage. Working on a tight budget Boyle and the production crew were forced to sell props and other parts of the stage set to obtain sufficient footage. These anecdotes fuel the creative aspiration that indie films convey to film students and the public, and they are embedded in the legend-making of how directors later got into the business.

Related to the film production background, the DIY attitude behind the craft of Shallow Grave is quite admirable. Comparable to the groundbreaking stylized touches Tarantino exhibited in the ’90s, Boyle’s direction puts the average studio film in a stale mood. The innovative visual composition of the film is coordinated with the tone of the story. The intro creates the effect of being mounted on the hood of a car or motorcycle. It reminds the audience of the fast-paced, hectic POV shots of Sam Raimi in his early work. Boyle turns every uninteresting opening shot into a cinematic spectacle, including zooming in on a staircase or panning around a ballroom. The camera rarely stands still and viewers get a palpable sense of the wild creativity at work here. These examples of sporting filmmaking are by no means in vain. They complement the amplified kinetic energy that engages the characters, especially when engaging in a criminal scheme.

The film is preferable to a piecemeal editing approach as it places more emphasis on being an active storytelling device rather than being unobtrusive. The fast-paced editing often breaks any textbook editing standard, but works on an original level and satisfies the film’s independent spirit. In the same boat as his American indie peers, Shallow Grave is complemented by a lively soundtrack full of offbeat pop music mixed with an original score by Simon Boswell. The eclecticly curated soundtrack plays with the emotions in one scene, but turns the tables and plays something contradictory in another scene. The narrative revolves around irreplaceable characters like David, Julia and Alex, thanks to the dingy, nondescript storytelling that goes with indie filmmaking. The cliche, perhaps renegade, approach to dealing with these mischievous characters is to create a source of justification for the cash withdrawal. These people are wealthy, merchant townspeople with fashionable careers. It was sheer greed that drove them to such chaos and paranoia.

“Shallow Grave” combines low and high art

Ewan McGregor as Alex Law with Money in Shallow Grave
Image via Rank Film Distributors

Quentin Tarantino is rightly credited with seamlessly blending high and low art into one unique work. His equal appreciation for French new wave and kung fu films paved the way for the Tarantino brand. Danny Boyle, who established a successful career directing genre exercises sunshine and award-winning prestige dramas in Slumdog Millionairewalks the fine line between pulpy B-movie sensibility and Shakespearean character drama Shallow Grave. The film works well as a thriller and as a psychological investigation into punk rock aggression against an affluent neighborhood.

Danny Boyle doesn’t shy away from the dirty element of his Hitchcock thriller, but his masterful filmmaking has enough elegance to take the story to a higher level. The collision of high and low art is manifested within the framework of the narrative. Giving these three characters, accountants, doctors and journalists, the task of dismembering a corpse is a thematic device. This indicates repressed sociopathic tendencies in a stuck-up class of people.

Shallow Grave ending explained

The end of Shallow Grave, which stays true to its distinct thematic style, is worth a closer look. The film begins with an introduction about friendship, narrated by David. He confidently states that friendship is more important than anything else as the camera spins on an axis and stares straight at his face. David has a blank look in his eyes, almost like he’s a corpse now. In the film’s climax, when the three betray each other over the money, Juliet stabs David in the back with a knife, killing him. The film returns to the opening shot with David’s face appearing quite pale. It turns out that this narrative track is about David speaking of the dead. As Alex lies on the ground with a knife and Juliet flees by plane, he says, “Oh yeah, I believe in friends. I think we need her. But if one day you realize you just can’t trust them anymore, well, what then? What then?” His body is then shoved into a drawer in the morgue.

Considering this is the last time we see Alex bleeding profusely, general logic would suggest that he would be dead as well. However, Alex has a strange grin on his face when the police arrive at the scene. The next shot then shows the bloody knife cutting through the ground. Directly below Alex are the remaining wads of money, dripping with the blood from the knife. It is a masterful recording that shows the violent consequences of greed. As for the aftermath of the climax sequence, is Alex dead? is he alive If so, why don’t the police help him by stopping the bleeding? Regardless of Alex’s fate, the ending concludes that greed prevails in this film. The money will come into Alex’s possession in this life or in the hereafter. An ambiguous end to morally corrupt characters is all in the stylistic brand Shallow GraveDanny Boyle and independent cinema.

Dustin Huang

Dustin Huang is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Dustin Huang joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: dustinhuang@24ssports.com.

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