"Trust and friendship. These are the things that matter, that help you on your way," declares conservative accountant David Stephens in a heartfelt voice-over that opens the dark, demented Scottish comedy Shallow Grave. The statement will prove remarkably ironic.
Helping David on his way are Alex, a glib newspaper reporter, and Juliet, a comely doctor. Roommates as well as buds, they laugh together and party together. They share meals and confidences. They take turns cooking and doing the dishes. Despite the boy-girl-boy dynamic, their relationship remains purely platonic, although Alex and Juliet's good-natured verbal sparring betrays a flirtatious undercurrent.
David and his pals need a fourth roommate to share their spacious flat in the heart of Glasgow, but they're very selective. Theirs is a flat to die for -- figuratively at first, literally later on. The three take pains to find someone who will be compatible with all of them, someone who won't upset their special chemistry. One of the film's funniest bits depicts the roommates as ad-hoc tribunal, grilling and rejecting a succession of clueless applicants. The eventual flatmate sweepstakes winner is Hugo, a handsome, affable fellow who charms Juliet when he meets her, and then wins the other two's approval by paying his rent and security deposit in cash.
"Can I ask you a question?" David inquires, sensing something his friends do not. "Have you ever killed anybody?"
"No," Hugo replies with a crooked smile. While he may or may not have killed somebody, Hugo, at the very least, has a few little secrets that might have given his new extended family pause had they known about them: 1) He has a fondness for heroin. 2) He has a suitcase full of cash tucked under his bed. 3) A pair of ruthless murderers want the loot.
But Hugo doesn't get much of a chance to explain himself. One day shortly after he moves in, he fails to answer Alex's repeated knocking at his bedroom door. No one's seen him leave, his room key is still in the lock, and his car is parked outside. The three flatmates break in only to discover Hugo's nude, lifeless corpse -- victim of an overdose -- sprawled across his bed. As David prepares to phone the police, Alex discovers the money and persuades his reluctant roomies to consider the effect such a windfall could have on their lives should they hang on to it.
Apparently Alex hasn't seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or he would know that sometimes the serious problems don't begin until after you find the moolah. The three fast friends soon become enmeshed in a web of greed and suspicion. Suddenly every ring of the telephone portends danger, every innocent comment from a stranger seems fraught with menace.
Screenwriter John Hodge (like Juliet, a doctor by profession) has crafted a hip, acerbic morality play. No one emerges unscathed. He details the slide from companionship to duplicity with the requisite jaundiced eye. "Oh yes, I believe in friends," David's disembodied voice laments as the film reaches its bloody climax. "But if you find that one day you just can't trust them, what then? What then?"
You don't have to be a cynic to enjoy Shallow Grave's brand of twisted, misanthropic humor, but it helps.
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