One of the most brilliantly nasty movies you’re likely to see this year slipped on to the circuit last week. It’s called Shallow Grave, and it’s seriously, seriously disturbing. In a market where blood is a selling point, the fact that Shallow Grave has appeared with so little hype adds to the film’s effectiveness: this is a movie whose unnerving qualities rely heavily on deception and unfulfilled expectations.
It starts off like a situation comedy. We’ve all heard that it’s about three flatmates trying to dispose of a body, but this is the stuff of farce, and the carefree shenannigans of the film’s early sequences confirm this impression. Three yuppies having fun in an Edinburgh flat that has “lifestyle” written all over it — their viciousness when faced with outsiders seems like high spirits at the time, but in retrospect it appears to set the tone for an increasingly cruel film.
The brief and nightmarish flashbacks do nothing to shed light on what’s going on — they only serve to disorientate the viewer further and add to the growing sense of unease. The film plays similar tricks with the conventions of character development, backtracking on its implied promises of heroes and happy endings.
Part of the film’s fascination also lies in the mundane context of its violence — take, for instance, the creative uses which its characters find for domestic appliances. The publicity poster makes inevitable comparisons with Quentin Tarantino, who has taken the idea of juxtaposing the grotesque with the banal and made it his own. But when Tarantino has his characters cleaning up shattered brains using kitchen-sink cleaning products, the ritual is accompanied by histrionics which almost overshadow the buckets of blood.
Shallow Grave, by contrast, keeps calm. The sound and fury happen early on, while the film is still in farce mode — somebody nearly wakes the entire block of flats by dropping a torch down the stairwell as the flatmates are lugging a corpse down the stairs. But when the real violence happens, the film plays it cool. Very cool. Chilling, in fact.