With the mud slide of Oscar nominations recently dumped on Forrest Gump, you might assume that the trend these days is toward kinder, fuzzier movies. Let’s chat again after you’ve seen Shallow Grave (Gramercy, R). Danny Boyle’s glittering, deadpan, nihilistic little thriller, a nasty Scottish cousin to such amoral specialty films as Pulp Fiction, The Grifters, and The Last Seduction, takes place for the most part in a spacious Glasgow flat shared by a trio of young roommates: Alex (Ewan McGregor), a newspaper journalist; Juliet (Kerry Fox), a doctor; and David (Christopher Eccleston), an accountant. The three may be the last of the unreconstructed yuppies — arch, acquisitive, attractive, smug. Advertising for a fourth tenant, they badger and mock a string of applicants until they find a suitable candidate in Hugo (Keith Allen), a cool-looking cat who turns out to be a thug involved with drugs, and who dies of an overdose, leaving behind a suitcase stuffed with cash.
What the three survivors do next — bickering over disposal of the corpse and fighting over the dough until the self-satisfied friends disintegrate into vile, scheming enemies — is what gives this relentlessly cold-blooded piece of work its kick. It’s shocking and weirdly thrilling to meet people so utterly devoid of souls. You admire the stylishness of the production, the artistry of the camera angles, the beauty of the lovely flat, so at odds with the unlovely people who live there.
Eventually, though, the shallowness of style over substance takes its toll. Shallow Grave has been praised as Hitchcockian — all that careful, twisted effort expended in the service of getting rid of a stiff. But Hitchcock would have limned the human condition in his characters’ flaws. How does David evolve from a humorless bean counter to a psycho who barricades himself in the attic? Why does Juliet stick around with such losers? Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge offer no context for the meaningless violence that takes place in the midst of such House Beautiful elegance. But maybe there’s reason, after all, to invoke the soulful Forrest Gump here. It was he who (legend has it) coined the motto by which the characters in Shallow Grave live and die: Shit happens. B-