Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shallow Grave -- degenerating relationships

Director: Danny Boyle, 1995.

Shallow Grave is a shallow film that moves from comedy to thriller midway through. Noteworthy as the feature debut of director Danny Boyle as well as first starring role for Ewan McGregor, McGregor holds this movie together.

McGregor stars as Alex, a cynical journalist and leader. He shares a Glasgow apartment (flat) with two friends, David (Christopher Eccleston), a boring accountant, and Juliet (Kerry Fox) a doctor. This jocular trio is full of fun and enjoying their friendship. David's opening monologue highlights the main themes of the film: "I am not ashamed to declare my feelings; take trust for instance, or friendship. These are the important things in life. These are the things that matter, that help you on your way. If you can't trust your friends, well, what then... What then?" Trust and friendship.

As the film starts they are seeking a fourth-flatmate. All prospective applicants have to undergo a cruel but comical interrogation, being peppered with questions as random as, "Now when you sacrifice a goat and you rip its heart out with your bare hands, do you then summon hellfire? Or do you just send out for a pizza?" Or, "how would you react, then, if I told you I was the Antichrist? . . . . When was the last time you heard these exact words: 'You are the sunshine of my life'?" Not surprisingly, none pass this Scottish Inquisition.

But Hugo manages to win Juliet's attention and she persuades her fellow flat mates to let him become the fourth. No sooner is he in, than he is not seen for days, locked behind his bedroom door. When they finally kick in his door, they find him flat on his back, naked and dead on his bed. And under the bed is a suitcase of money. What to do? Juliet and David want to call the police; Alex has grander and greedier plans. He wants to keep the money and dispose of the body in the titular shallow grave. His influence wins. But David draws the short straw for the grisly job of removing all forms of identification from the body. This is the turning point in the film.

Money does not always solve problems. Often it brings with it more and worse problems. In the second half, thugs come looking for the loot. But this is the least of their problems. David, like Lady MacBeth a fellow Scot, cannot see his hands without seeing the blood that they shed. He becomes delusional, taking to living in the attic with the hidden money. No longer trusting his friends, he drills holes everywhere so he can spy on them. Little by little the happy threesome degenerates into a set of deeply suspicious singles. By the end these three are at each others' throats.

Boyle uses money here as he does in many of his movies, as a vehicle to explore humanity. In Millions he focused on the dilemma of a schoolboy finding a bag with millions. But where Millions was upbeat and light, this is decidedly dark.

Shallow Grave has a similar plot to Sam Raimi's later movie, A Simple Plan. Both focus on the effects of greed on friendships. Will money make you happy? Will it cement relationships? Not necessarily. Ethically, it is the underlying heart attitude that is all-important. Jesus tells us we cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24). Money is amoral, but will underscore what is important to a person. It reveals the state of a person's heart. For Alex and friends, it revealed their self-centeredness and greed. What would a million dollars sitting on your kitchen table reveal about you?

For David, the money causes self-disintegration. Descending from dull to delusional to dangerous, Boyle highlights David's transformation and derangement in the second and third acts. It is not really money that is the cause. It is the sin that is inherent in him, and all of us, that rises with the temptation of the money.

Shallow Grave paints a picture of the relational destructiveness of sin. Sin always causes separation. As original sin separated Adam from Eve, and Adam from God, so sin separates friends and brings on distrust. It is a high cost for a shallow gain. Is it worth it? Count the cost and you'll see it is not. Friendship and trust . . . priceless.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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