Among the cool indie kids of the 1990s, Danny Boyle may not have left as sizeable a cultural footprint as a Tarantino or a Linklater. Still, any filmmaking career spanning more than twenty years and almost as many genres is nothing to sniff at; if anything, Boyle has come to define himself through such variety and volatility.
Already a veteran of stage and TV by the time he broke out in the world of film, it’s little wonder that Shallow Grave turned out to be such an assured first feature. A tale of three flatmates (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Boyle staple Ewan McGregor) torn apart by a briefcase filled with cash, the largely limited setting, modest number of characters and darkly comic tone demanded a directorial resourcefulness that the Brit helmer delivered in spades.
Given to even more freneticism and an overbearing sense of personality, Boyle’s screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s profane, provocative Trainspotting only solidified his presence as one to watch. This look at the helter-skelter lives of several Edinburgh junkies may have seemed tough to watch on the surface -- suppository diving, anyone? -- yet its morality-tale underpinnings laid bare Boyle’s diem-carping tendencies (the film’s very first line famously being “Choose life”).
Based on true events, 127 Hours falls most obviously into this tradition of arm harm and ultimate perseverance, as James Franco ventures out into the wilderness alone, only to find himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Much stock-taking ensues, with many flashbacks to time spent with loved ones, leaving our hero to choose life by way of a grisly makeshift amputation.
Even Boyle’s pulpier outings - the live-wire Romero riff 28 Days Later and the slicker slasher-in-space Sunshine, both starring Cillian Murphy and both a great deal of fun - are about choosing life in the face of increasingly grim odds. The former also marked Boyle’s first foray into shooting digital, a technology that he and frequent cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have only pushed to more striking ends since. The latter, meanwhile, gave the world a much-needed answer to the eventual trivia question, “In which movie does the Human Torch freeze to death?”
Warmer fables like Millions and Slumdog Millionaire (that unlikely breakout success for which Boyle won his Best Director Oscar) seemed like drastic tonal departures from those more visceral B-movies which immediately preceded them, but all were improbable extensions of that same struggle to survive, whether those characters found themselves in the slums of Mumbai or on the surface of the sun.
That’s not to say that all of Boyle’s gambles have paid off equally. His attempt at screwball comedy with A Life Less Ordinary couldn’t have seemed like a harder left turn after the bleakness of Trainspotting, but as high as it is in energy, it’s fatally low on genuine charm. The Boyle-DiCaprio collaboration The Beach married 127 Hours’ awe of natural paradise with a well-trod wariness of human greed to largely unremarkable effect.
Then there’s his most recent feature, Trance, a kaleidoscopic psychosexual misfire concerning two guys, a girl, and a whole lot of money that attempted to reinvigorate the tried-and-true formula of Boyle’s first film (not to mention countless noirs before it), but ultimately grew exhausting in its continual rug-pulling and agitated visual assembly.
Now, after ten features, Boyle swerves yet again by tackling Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs. David Fincher’s notoriously meticulous approach to the ratatat rhythms of The Social Network resulted in something of a modern classic, but perhaps Boyle’s more mercurial approach will lend those oh-so-clever lines a welcome sense of spontaneity. After all, if this director and this subject had any quality in common, it was one thing: a willingness to think differently.