Blood simple

"Shallow Grave" a clinical exercise in gore and paranoia; the Tao of girls and guns in "Love & a .45"

Three yuppies from Glasgow — journalist Alex (Ewan McGregor), accountant David (Chris Eccleston) and physician Juliet (Kerry Fox) — take on a fourth flatmate, who overdoses on drugs the night he moves in. Under his bed, a suitcase brims with cash. After a day of dithering, more over “feasibility” than morality, the previously upstanding protagonists of Shallow Grave decide to dispose of the corpse and split the dough. Faster than you can say Erich von Stroheim's Greed, the conspirators turn into conniving, paranoid wrecks.

Subtlety and decorum having long since abandoned the pulp thriller onscreen, Shallow Grave illustrates each gruesome phase of the body-removal scheme concocted by Alex, right down to the pitiable retching by David as he hacksaws off the arms, legs and face of the trio's benefactor. In this last segment, director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge keep the gore to a minimum — knowing what David's up to is enough.

Elsewhere the imagery is more blunt, but after the '90s-style bloodletting of Reservoir Dogs, Killing Zoe, Man Bites Dog, et al., we'd probably feel gypped without it. My reaction to Shallow Grave's mayhem was as jaded as that of Juliet, who shrugs nonchalantly before tossing the aforementioned body parts onto a cart headed for her hospital's incinerator.

The key evidence destroyed, our mouseketeers are home free — if they maintain their com-posure, if the nasty folks whose money they've got don't trace it to them and if that titular grave's been dug deep enough. Hodge plots the film fiendishly and Boyle's technique is dazzling — he uses color, especially red, to great effect; likewise light and movement. So it takes a while to realize that Shallow Grave emphasizes mechanics at the expense of the finer points of storytelling, most notably character development. The filmmakers almost get away with it; after an hour, though, Shallow Grave begins to feel more like a clinical experiment than an artwork.

One could fault Hodge and Boyle for deliberately setting up Alex, Juliet and David as selfish and mean-spirited, making it difficult for audiences to empathize with them. But this isn't the problem. Von Stroheim's adversaries were equally venal, but his fascination with the why of their behavior, as opposed merely to the how, gave viewers a greater stake in Greed's outcome. Because the dirty deed transforms David the most, he registers more fully than Alex or Juliet. Still, even David remains indistinct. Juliet is rarely more than a foil for the guys, and Alex's unsteady equilibrium seems tied more to plot than character.

Like so many filmmakers in these gotta-be-hip days, Boyle and Hodge are too cool to analyze, perhaps fearful they've somehow copped out if they fully engage their film's subject (which they appear capable of doing). Not that they need to come to an old-fashioned philosophical or moral conclusion, but it's a pity they fritter away Shallow Grave's intellectual potential. What could have been simultaneously a clever meditation on human nature and satisfying lowbrow entertainment settles only for the second.

Daniel Mangin

Armed and confused in “Love & a .45”
Crickets hum in the Texas night. A lonesome whistle blows. The bug light crackles as a '70s muscle car rolls into the dusty parking lot. Consulting the I Ching, the traveler pulls on a ski mask and moseys into the convenience store, where a smooth-faced clerk (Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused) has his head stuck in a copy of Girls & Guns. The masked man tells the kid to quit thinking about pussy, places his pistol on the counter and dares him to make his move.

Although it degenerates into a derivative muddle of Mexican standoffs and stylized slow motion, this first-time film by C.M. Talkington starts off as pure white-trash haiku. Stickup artist Wally Watts (Gil Bellows) has a TV-dinner version of the American dream: a beautiful girlfriend, a car and a trailer home. When his friends turn into homicidal maniacs and the law starts beating down his door, Wally and the winsome Starlene (Renee Zellweger) abandon their wrong-side-of-the-tracks idyll and, in the red-blooded desperado tradition, run for the border. As Wally puts it, “There are only two things you need to get by on this planet: love and a .45.”

For a while, Love & a .45 does get by on its low-octane formula, melding Richard Linklater's lazy pacing and Quentin Tarantino's grim edge into a pastiche of slacker True Romance. Wally and Starlene tie the knot and get a cash gift from her father, who defiantly refuses to betray the newlyweds when he's tortured by brutal thugs. The fugitive honeymooners become media darlings, and the ubiquitous tabloid “Crime Channel” milks their spree for all it's worth, with teasers like “Murderers, movie stars or both?”

But beyond the borrowing, writer-director Talkington makes an intuitive leap that links the “me generation” disenchantment of Bonnie and Clyde to the hardcore ennui of Natural Born Killers. Explicitly identifying sex and violence as the yin and yang of lovers on the lam, Love & a .45 uncovers a particularly Taoist impulse in America's movie outlaws. Like the rebellious children of the New Frontier, the next generation is rediscovering the road to nowhere that merges into the Way of the Universe. And like wild-at-heart rebels from Thelma & Louise to Mickey and Mallory, Wally and Starlene sense that it's better to live free and die than to be swallowed by a morally corrupt establishment.

Of course, there was a time when only the teacup Transcendentalists took the road less traveled to explore the mysteries of the Orient. Now even blue-collar badasses hang up their guns to walk the earth … you know, like Caine in Kung Fu. In the company of superior pulp fictions, Talkington's Zen insight isn't enough to rescue his uneven ode to the open road.

As chewing gum for short attention spans, Love & a .45 offers the performances of Dazed and Confused's Rory Cochrane as a particularly uneasy rider and Peter Fonda as a near-absurdist casualty of the '60s. Bellows bogs down beneath the Confucian confusion foisted on him by Talkington; Zellweger, somewhere between Laura Dern and Kristy Swanson in her screen presence, isn't asked to do more than look good in short cutoffs. At finish Love & a .45 too closely resembles the smirky Americana of Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me, another unhappy marriage of the Tao of highway and The Dukes of Hazzard.

William O. Goggins
Shallow Grave opens Fri, Feb. 24, at the Kabuki in S.F. and the UA Berkeley. Love & a .45 opens Fri, Feb. 24, at the Red Vic in S.F. and also plays Feb. 24-25 at Berkeley's U.C. Theatre.

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