If the legacy of Patricia Highsmith could be said to live on through the work of any contemporary artist, it would surely be the British filmmaker Danny Boyle. Boyle, who has worked in a range of genres—from 2002’s zombie flick 28 Days Later to Millions, a wondrous children’s fable directed two years later—is a director with a vision. Much like Highsmith, he rarely treads lightly. His touch is definitive and recognizable to anyone acquainted with his work. However, his isn’t the first name you associate with the modern-day auteur. He, like Highsmith, is more an artist-craftsman than a flashy star—rarely do their personalities overwhelm their work—a director whose work appeals to those uninterested in film’s form but whose fan’s immediately recognize his narrative and visual style.
Through this interplay Boyle’s films bridge the gap between mainstream and independent movies. When they came out, his Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) catered for a very different audience than The Beach (2000), as Boyle temporary abandoned the gritty Brit genre in favor of a glossy Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster which, ultimately, earned him the most critical derision. Unlike many of his peers, Boyle traverses genre and thus creates two parallel audiences for his movies: the genre audience likely to only see one of his movies and uninterested in him as a filmmaker, and the audience comprising his fans. Typically, the former group tends to be more disappointed with his films than the latter, who have come to expect of the director certain key successes: a solid soundtrack, engaging story, and generally beautiful photography.
Boyle, it seems, falls just short of winning over the adulation of genre audiences. Like Highsmith, he suffers from a certain kind of carelessness with regard to narrative, requiring audience members to abandon logic (even that curious kind of movie-logic that allows us suspend belief and accept the undead and star wars alike). Perhaps this comes from fact that Boyle’s films try and establish practical explanations for unworldly situations: Sunshine sets out a long explanation regarding the looming death of the sun and the mechanics for our salvation. 28 Days Later doesn’t proffer a world in which zombies exist, but rather tries to explain their origin; begging more questions than it answers.
Boyle thus tries to weave a certain kind of drama out of extraordinary situations that relate to believable experiences and pedestrian concerns. Like Highsmith before him, Boyle is concerned with revealing threat in the quotidian. Both Boyle and Highsmith set out stories in recognizable worlds floating on an undercurrent of seething tension. Small gestures and brief moments disrupt the tension, causing dramatic action that is both shocking and, strangely, unsurprising. They share in Alfred Hitchcock’s fascination with ordinary accidentally implicated into worlds of horror and intrigue. Highsmith, whose work has been adapted for film countless times and has produced both Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Boyle, who has collaborated extensively with novelist Alex Garland on Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and The Beach, are both figures whose work is both literary and filmic, rooted across media.
Each, however, is bound to their medium of choice through their formal sensibilities. Highsmith’s style is unmistakably literary and Boyle rather unabashedly exploits (cheap) film techniques. Somehow, he employs an MTV-pop-cum-Baz Luhrmann aesthetic with a surprising degree of grace—a signature style that unites his movies. The scenes in which the brilliant Christopher Eccleston loses his marbles in Shallow Grave; DiCaprio’s descent into his hyper-aware hunter state in The Beach; Cillian Murphy’s salvation of the human colony in 28 Days Later; and the dramatic final scene as Cillian Murphy once again comes to humanity’s salvation in Sunshine all share in a set of what have become Boyle’s signature trademark for narrative climax. These scenes feature blurry focusing, wildly mobile camerawork, rapid editing, and confused perspectives to achieve what can only be described as a frenetic environment. Boyle has maintained these techniques across a diverse group of cinematographers, from Alwin Kuchler (who shot Lynne Ramsay’s stunning Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher) to the superlative Anthony Dod Mantle (the preferred photographer of Dogme founders Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg), and while the films at large are totally different visually, Boyle’s style prevails over these moments.
The transformation of his protagonists reveals Boyle’s fascination with the Nietzschean übermensch. His themes of nihilism and the abandonment of traditional moral systems all parallel the philosopher’s own interests, and are a extension of the same narratives crafted by Highsmith decades earlier. Like Tom Ripley or the hundreds of protagonists of Highsmith’s short stories, Boyle’s characters transcend their humanity during narrative climax to confront not only adversity, but the traditional worlds in which the narrative itself is grounded. Nietzsche’s influences over Boyle shouldn’t be passed off as merely an afterthought and the comparison isn’t meant to be heavy-handed, but it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge the commonality.
I also don’t mean to gush over Boyle by aligning him with figures as illustrious as Nietzsche or Patricia Highsmith. I mean only to explain why he warrants attention as a director and not the sum of his products. Highsmith, for example, has a remarkable ability to keep her verbal cool when describing horrific scenes. Her descent into violence isn’t marked stylistically or structurally, as is Boyle’s. Hers instead is a world whose very consistency renders its violence all the more terrifying. She doesn’t seek to disaggregate the horror from the tension nor the bloody from the quotidian. They are the same, and they are simultaneous. Boyle, on the other hand, creates a dichotomous world of climax and latency. His threat underlies both, yet he literalizes the expression “to break into chaos.” This is a choice, of course, yet in my mind one that detracts from the potential power of his carefully constructed situations. Ultimately, Boyle and Highsmith create worlds both pedestrian and accessible, that is until they reach the tipping point and our empathetic ties carry us through their terrifying descent.