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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Grave' Pieces Together Dark Cut-'Em-Up Comedy

February 10, 1995|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Shallow Grave" confirms what many of us have long suspected: Living with roommates can make you murderous. The movie is a nasty little joke but, by the time it ends, you may feel like the joke is on you. It's a black comedy that gets progressively blacker--and redder.

David (Christopher Eccleston), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and Alex (Ewan McGregor), who share a cavernous apartment in central Scotland, are looking for a roommate. They grill prospective candidates inquisition-style--they enjoy making them feel unworthy.

Perhaps this is because, in their workaday lives, these three seem cowed and unformed--regular people. David, a gangly twit, works as a chartered accountant; Juliet works nights as a physician in a local hospital, Alex is a journalist. In their cocoon-like apartment they come into their own. Cut off from the outside world, they create their own romper room of knockabout neuroses. They take turns lording it over each other. It's a folie a trois .

In the course of their roomie search they end up with a fresh corpse in their flat. Their moral dilemma: Should they turn over to the police the valise bulging with cash belonging to the corpse? It doesn't take long for the shovels and hacksaws to come out, with body parts stuffed in the attic--and more parts to come.

What's shocking, and funny, about "Shallow Grave" is that the trio's transition from home-grown batty to butcher batty is accomplished without a hitch. Their sawing and stuffing is just an extension of their self-enclosed sniping. In a weirdly apt way, the bloodletting dovetails nicely into their careers: David is fanatical about accounting for body parts, Juliet spends a lot of time around corpses anyway, and Alex, in the film's tartest cackle, gets assigned by his newspaper to cover the murders.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (who is a physician!) keep the action spurting forward, but their approach is oblique. We seem to be catching the odds and ends of scenes; it's as if the filmmakers wanted to make a movie in which all the expected high points were skimped. (What we see, except for some garish torture flashbacks, is the bloody aftermath of the crimes.) The film is a modernist tease, but perhaps the modernism is there to distract from the basic pulp dreadfulness of the conception. "Shallow Grave" is a hermetically sealed shocker with a cast of characters who come across like sporty zombies. Maybe this is why the film seems vaguely futuristic. It has a sci-fi sheen.

British black comedies about murder, like, say "The Ladykillers," used to specialize in tasteful grotesquerie. Cadavers were always good for a few chuckles. "Shallow Grave" is a nouveau version of those tasteful, garish chucklefests. It's much more bloody than its predecessors but, in a way, the too-hip smarty-pants badinage, askew camera angles and fractured storytelling are all attempts at spiffiness. They're attempts to pattern the gruesomeness into a style. Boyle and Hodge want us to know they're above the simple lowdown pleasure of the penny dreadfuls. They want to make a cut-'em-up with class .

Class has its place, but some of us prefer our cut-'em-ups a little more lowdown.

* MPAA rating: R, for scenes of strong, grisly violence and for some language and nudity. Times guidelines: It includes scenes of body parts disposal and graphic torture.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Shallow Grave' Kerry Fox: Juliet Christopher Eccleston: David Ewan McGregor: Alex Law Ken Stott: Detective McCall A Gramercy Pictures release. Director Danny Boyle. Producer Andrew Macdonald. Executive producer Allan Scott. Screenplay by John Hodge. Cinematographer Brian Tufano. Editor Masahiro Hirakubo. Costumes Kate Carin. Music Simon Boswell. Production design Kave Quinn. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

* Selected theaters.

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