He may be our most inventive living director - or at the very least, our must idiosyncratic. In his brief tenure as a feature filmmaker he’s made a Hitchcockian thriller (Shallow Grave), a daring dope fiend farce (Trainspotting), a less than routine romantic comedy (A Life Less Ordinary), a flawed idyllic allegory (The Beach), a revisionist horror film (28 Days Later), a feel good kiddie flick (Millions), a stunning sci-fi meditation (Sunshine) and now, a knotty little jewel called Slumdog Millionaire. When he succeeds, he does so royally (the last four films on that list, for example). When he fails it’s the most spectacular of stumbles (the less said about Life, the better).
Most filmmakers don’t often venture outside their own creative comfort zone. More times than not it’s both a personal and professional choice. The aforementioned Master of Suspense rarely tried anything outside the thriller. Steven Spielberg sticks almost exclusively with big budget blockbusters, or important themed dramas. Tim Burton is and will probably always be a good natured Goth goof, while Guy Ritchie has been making the same steak and kidney pie crime comedy since he first merged handheld camerawork with songs by The Clash. There are some who like the shake things up: Peter Jackson has gone from zombie gore to puppet porn to Oscar winning epics; The Coen Brothers often break the gap between genres, doing screwball comedy one opening, a nasty crime drama the next.
But Boyle not only jumps from type to type, he excels at them. Forgiving his flops for the moment, the man who made us believe in the viability of post-2001 serious science fiction, the Brothers Grimm grandeur of drug addiction, and the controllable terror of fast moving monsters so often broaches brilliance that to think of him in any other terms is just absurd. Again, when he’s good, he’s gonzo! And yet there is that stumble in his catapulting career path, a pair of perplexing entries more concerned about their leading men (Ewan McGregor and Leonard DiCaprio, respectively) than the artistry he would show otherwise.
Naturally, there’s a reason behind his high percentage output. Boyle is clearly a humanist. Strip away the veneer of vibrance and showboating style from what he brings to a project, and his movies end up as very clever character studies. We care about the Scottish smackheads who have getting ‘clean’ - and finding a fix - down to a science (the better to get back on the wicked white horse) and worry about the random patient who wakes up in an abandoned, Rage-infested London. The roommates of Grave get our attention and swayed sympathy because of how rapidly they allow money to change everything - sometimes, fatally so - and the big idea elements of Sunshine still can’t overwhelm the individuals onboard, each one desperate to do their job to save a dying solar system.
His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is a testament to his continuing affirmation of the dignity and worth of the human being. It’s bleak, bizarre, and often bereft of a single glimmer of hope. And yet in telling the tale of dirt poor Jamal, his brazen brother Salim, and the orphan girl Latika who comes to define them, Boyle brings such perilous poverty to vivid, unforgettable life. Even better, we get a real handle on how everyday existence is metered out in such horrific, merciless conditions. As he does with all his films, Boyle finds the shorthanded way of explaining the pragmatic precepts of making ends meet - scavenging for food, hustling for money, avoiding the law…even defying the laws of physics. We go into his movies as innocents. We come out with a wealth of real life lessons.
In addition, Boyle is a great believer in spaces, be it a ratty Glasgow bedroom/rehab center, the filthiest toilet in all of Scotland, an isolated slice of Thai paradise, or a spaceship’s observational “sun” deck. He uses his locations to illustrate the often unusual or outright odd situations in his story. They often provide a counterpoint to what is happening onscreen. In Slumdog, our characters seek refuge in an abandoned hotel, the proposed opulence overshadowed by its dusty, unused interiors. Similarly, the childhood ghetto of Jamal and Salim is turned into a set of luxury apartments, some of which appear carved directly out of the side of a mountain. It’s such a stunning juxtaposition that we forget all about the people involved - that is, until Boyle sets the last act of his drama directly in the middle of his stifling newly forged suburban sprawl.
But more than just people and places, Boyle is a filmmaker influenced by ideas. All of his films offer unique perspectives on the seemingly mundane - or if not ordinary, the everyman approach to the outsized. When England becomes a pseudo-zombie warzone, the reaction of the survivors is more terrifying than the creatures, while the same can be said for the greedy brother of the kind hearted lad at the center of Millions. Even the angels in A Life Less Ordinary are more workaday than the main characters. All throughout Slumdog, the good natured smiles of young Jamal and Salim annul the horrific squalor they live in, and even when they find themselves a part of an abusive beggar’s school, they remain convinced that happiness is just around the corner.
In fact, the final thing that can be said about Boyle is that he’s forever indebted to the forces of the feel good. His movies don’t always end on an up note, but they do tend to trip ever so closet over toward the notion of optimism. Sometimes, such suggestions are studio mandated (the alternate endings for 28 Days Later), while in many cases, Boyle’s approach to the material mandates same. Certainly characters make massive sacrifices to get us to these upbeat finales (Sunshine and Slumdog both moderate tragedy into tenuous joy), and in the end, the success might be temporary at best. But in a world where the downbeat and the dour tend to rule most missives, having someone cater to hope now and again is something worth noting. Where someone as clearly skilled as Danny Boyle goes from here will be interesting to see (there is talk of a Trainspotting sequel!). But whenever it is, he will surely make the journey more than worth our while.