In honor of Swiss Army Man, which you can buy tickets for here, we're proud to present Over My Dead Body, a series of articles on films that prominently feature corpses.
Unlike most successful noir films, Danny Boyle’s directorial debut Shallow Grave creates a sense of dread by delaying its presence. Where other films might present a cracked mirror perspective from the start, Boyle chooses a world closer to the casual naturalism of a romantic comedy, then populates it with a transformative MacGuffin, in this case a dead body, that drags everyone in the direct vicinity down into the ensuing darkness.
Shallow Grave stars a trio of affable flatmates bonded by their mutual love of mischief. Alex (Ewan McGregor) is a mouthy journalist who sees nothing in this world not worth taking the piss out of, while David (Christopher Eccleston) is a straight laced accountant with an aversion to risk. Juliet (Kerry Fox), is a doctor. She displays subtle chemistry with each of her roomies, but it’s muted. Both attractions lay dormant underneath the surface, but manifest in the occasional lingering glance. When we meet them, they’re semi-seriously interviewing applicants to be the fourth in their flat, but mostly they’re just dicking around, using the opportunity to prank and prod strangers for entertainment.
They end up settling for Hugo (Keith Allen), a sly man claiming to be a writer who beguiles the flatmates enough to join the abode. Before the new squad can get properly acquainted, they find Hugo dead with his dick out in the bedroom, a giant suitcase full of money a few steps from his corpse. It’s the cinematic power of this dead body here that stands out. Up until this point, outside of a few foreshadowing cutaways to two men beating and interrogating strangers, Shallow Grave feels like little more than a stylish indie Brit comedy. The characterizations are breezy. The dialogue is clever. It’s a charming little romp. But this immediate injection of danger contorts the proceedings into a hideous, twisted psychological drama. It turns post traumatic stress disorder into its own kind of film noir.
The changes are subtle at first. Upon smelling the dearly departed Hugo, Alex makes a direct move to open a nearby window to let air in, but without a thought, also pulls the curtain closed. It’s automatic, this sense of self preservation. They don’t rush to the phone and dial 911. Instead, they silently weigh their options, all of which seem to go right out that open window when they discover the money.
The decision to keep the cash and dispose of Hugo’s body, oddly enough, is reached with just as much cavalier snark as their flatmate interviews, but the act itself is what drives them down the darkened path. Hugo’s body needs to be chopped up, his teeth beaten out of his face to avoid identification. They draw straws for who’s going to have to do the physical part and David, the one least interested in keeping the money in the first place, gets cursed with the task. Once the deed is done, the three leads each begin disastrous transformations.
Like drugs or alcohol, the lust for money and the guilt of corpse desecration take the worst traits of these three friends and makes them only moreso. Alex and Juliet, already pretty callous people, indulge in their baser attractions to decadence, spending their ill gotten gains wildly, while David’s personal trepidations about getting caught cause him to retreat further into his own mind. At this stage, their lives have moved from light comedy to a suspense thriller, an anti-"Tell Tale Heart" of sorts, as David hides the remaining money in their attic. That lofty setting becomes as much a source of disquiet as the floorboards from Poe’s short story, raining down a churning sense of foreboding from on high.
Once those aforementioned men previously seen in brief vignettes come calling for Hugo and his money, that suspense thriller blows up into a full on noir caper. David kills both men, fully hatching from the murderous cocoon he’s been gestating in throughout the film’s runtime. His rebirth as a clinically detached, paranoid and exacting force of nature lights a fuse in his co-stars as well. Juliet becomes even more aware of the sexual power she holds over her flatmates, becoming a duplicitous femme fatale. Alex, who up until this point seemed the most morally dubious of the three, gets in over his head and struggles to stay above water.
The final act sees this triangle devolve into a disturbing cat and mouse game. When all you have between you is secrets, mistrust is bred, turning every conversation into a potential interrogation. Allegiances shift and double crosses occur, while these three friends who once bonded so easily over shared dinners and casual camaraderie cling to their own individual escape plans. Only cruelty and suspicion remain as useful tethers between them. All the minor points of contention seeded in the beginning of the film, namely David’s jealousy of Alex’s charisma, explode in the film’s climax.
Had Shallow Grave remained how it appeared from the jump, perhaps all of the issues they shared would have stayed just under the surface, repressed as they often are in daily life. But Hugo’s body and the money he left behind drag these otherwise regular Joes kicking and screaming into a world of genre convention, where noir tropes dictate the rules of play for working out their transgressions. Money can change everything, but a little death goes a long way, too.