'Shallow Grave' is compelling case study of greed

March 03, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Some day there'll be a cinema of human kindness an respect, a cinema that reflects humanity at its finest, the pleasures of random acts of kindness and institutionalized mercy. Some day. But, thank God, not today, when the exceedingly nasty "Shallow Grave" performs its act of brazen black magic. It's not a movie, it's a viper-strike. You don't say "Wow," you say "Ouch."

Opening today at the Charles, it's a movie that puts aside such niceties as charm and sympathy. It plunges you coldly into a hideous world, where you squirm as its three protagonist-victims try to survive two sets of predators: first, the thugs outside their apartment; and second, themselves when they become the predators inside the apartment.

The apartment is the key. For "Shallow Grave" is a quintessential apartment movie, even more so than the one that Billy Wilder made, called "The Apartment." In fact, the flat in question is almost a character in the film, a spacious aerie high above Edinburgh with bright rooms, vivid views, lofty ceilings, ample storage space. It's worth killing for, and it's certainly easy enough to kill in.

Occupied by three Scottish yuppies -- a doctor, a newspaper reporter and an accountant -- it's too good to give up and too good to share with the terminally uncool. Thus we first meet Juliet (Kerry Fox), David (Christopher Eccleston) and Alex (Ewan McGregor) as they interrogate potential new roommates. They are rude, snide, snippy and superior. They are sublimely amused by themselves and can find no one up to their impossibly high standards until Hugo shows up, with his hooded good looks and complete sang-froid. Nothing rattles him. He's a hipster's hipster. In fact he's so cool, he could be a gangster.

Oops. He is a gangster. And very shortly he's a dead gangster, having shot a little too much recreational smack. Problem: That suitcase under the bed with a half-million pounds in cash. Hmmmm. Decent people would call the police. But as we all know, Juliet, David and Alex aren't decent. (It's one of life's meaner rules, but it always applies: Nice people don't end up in cool apartments.)

The situation has reminded many of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" as a study in the corrosive influences of greed, but it put me more in mind of Scott Smith's brilliant thriller, "A Simple Plan." In that one, a young man finds a criminal fortune, decides to be very smart about keeping it, works logically, and in small increments tiptoes into serial killerhood.

The pathology of the apartment group is equally perverse, and Boyle brings it out in all its stubborn, carbuncular grandeur. It does occur to them that Hugo's colleagues might have a vested interest in recovering the money, as well as the police. In order to cover up his brief stay with them, they take Hugo out to the woods and deposit him in the destination of the title.

But there's a nasty undertaste to "Shallow Grave." In order to prevent the identification of the body, they cut off its hands and feet. As Boyle handles the sequence though, it's wickedly funny: These fastidious, fashion- obsessed narcissists ickily willing themselves into committing an atrocity against a cadaver. In an odd way, it's reminiscent of the scene in "Beetlejuice" in which another crew of self-adoring cosmopolitans is forced to sing calypso.

Defeating their squeamishness is only a first step. From outside come lesser and greater problems. The cops are the lesser problem; the greater problem is a couple of thugs from the Scottish underworld, Hugo's associates (in flashback located in nobody's head except the screenwriter's, we've learned that Hugo was some kind of incredibly brutal drug enforcer). Professionally violent, these two move with the vivid alacrity of sharks feeding on little fishes. They bring a will to violence that stuns the yuppies. That's a joke: As smart as they are, Juliet and Alex are utterly unfit to deal with a reality so vicious.

But then the tough guys run into David, one of those sublimely organized, almost totally efficient fellows, who has himself taken the predicament to its next logical step. He's ready for them. But when all the outside antagonists are dispatched, the real fun starts for the roomies: They must deal with themselves.(Come to think of it, this is the one that should be called "Roommates.")

"Shallow Grave" lines up with a small group of American counterparts -- "The Last Seduction," "Red Rock West," "Blood Simple," on back to Noel Black's "Pretty Poison." It is smashingly entertaining, if you can pay the cost, which is that you hang your scruples with your hat and coat by the door.

"Shallow Grave"

Starring Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor

Directed by Danny Boyle

Released by Gramercy

Rated R (extreme violence)

*** 1/2

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