Note: This is the last of several pieces I have done exploring the work of this year’s Best Director nominees. A piece for the fifth nominee, Stephen Daldry, will follow after the Oscar ceremony this Sunday.Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later
The architecture of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is fairly similar to that of most other zombie films: a cataclysmic event turns most of the world into the walking dead and a cluster of survivors band together to fight off their impending doom. It sounds like standard, George Romero-type stuff until you actually see the movie, which finds several interesting ways to subvert the audience’s expectations.
The first of which is the zombies themselves. In Romero’s films, they acted as lumbering drunks would on a pub crawl, moving slowly and leaving the unafflicted plenty of time to escape. Boyle’s zombies (referred to as the “infected,” having contracted a “rage” virus released from the blood of wild chimpanzees) have the voltage cranked up considerably. With bulging, yellowish pupils and their mouths forever caked in the blood of their most recent victim, they pursue their prey relentlessly, perpetually releasing a high pitched squeal like pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse. Romero’s zombies were slow and a little goofy, meant to represent the oafish, consumer Americans the director was satirizing in films like Dawn of the Dead. Boyle seeks a more terrifying end, and succeeds.
The film is also one of the most introspective horror movies I’ve ever seen, unfolding not as a shocking gorefest (though there are plenty of kills) but as a meditation on human nature. It is fascinating how much complexity Boyle and his screenwriter, Alex Garland, are able to find in a horror scenario that, since Romero, had been used for little more than buckets of blood and cheap thrills. Boyle and Garland push the horror genre to its breaking point until they drift into something closer to an existential morality play; the human characters have to fight off and survive the infected, but also have to confront the ways in which, through brutality and violence, they already exhibit many of their characteristics.
The movie is also a story of a young man looking for guidance in a world where most of the parents have either run away or perished. The young man is Jim (Cillian Murphy), who wakes up in a hospital room, completely naked, totally deserted, wondering how he got there. Boyle shows Murphy in unsparing nudity through most of the scene, which is correct, as it shows Jim as little more than a newborn baby, awakening into a world quite unlike the one he knew before.
Jim wanders the hospital. He finds some clothes. He gathers up supplies for his journey to find help. As he walks the streets, we realize he is in a deserted London. He walks over the Thames in the face of Big Ben and finds no one. Boyle actually shot the London scenes for real, holding off citizens to give the impression of a deserted city. He also chose to shoot the film on digital video, still an emerging format at the time, which achieves its most potent effect in these scenes; we get an almost documentary sense of Jim’s terror, fully involved with it but still seeming to glance it from afar, as the film affects a type of mundane chaos.
Jim eventually wanders into a deserted building where he has to confront one of the infected and flee as more come to consume him. He is saved by Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), who subsequently look after him and tell him the situation: they got word that the virus had spread to France and America before the radio broadcasts ended. They also know that you have twenty seconds to kill an infected person before they turn.
Garland and Boyle have fun with the relationship between Jim and Selena who, despite the post-apocalyptic predicament, develop a romantic infatuation. While other films would amp this up to a stylized sex scene, this one is content with a tender moment of Selena delivering a well-timed kiss on Jim’s cheek. Murphy is a wonderful actor who has gone on to do great things since (he worked with Boyle again on Sunshine) but I’ve always had soft spot for his work here; he creates an instinctive, resourceful hero who could have so easily been played as a vague everyman. Harris is also effective as Selena, a woman who is able to take charge of any situation, but does well to admit that she is more vulnerable than she appears.
Two more characters eventually join the group: Frank (Brendan Gleeson), a burly man of middle age and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns). They hear on the radio of a safe army post near Manchester. The group decides to venture across the English countryside in Frank’s taxi. Once they reach the army post, they encounter a group of military survivors living in an abandoned country house. They feel safe enough until the commanding officer, Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) reveals himself to be more sinister than they first suspected. West has promised his men women as the gift of a future, with their sights now turning to Hannah and Selena. And so the third act emerges.
This sequence, while seeming standard, works because Boyle and Garland execute it properly. There is action, but not the type where the characters become the subject of video game violence; Garland has created fully rounded characters who act off of their own motivations and not because of the requirements of the plot. Ultimately, the story is about what is beneath the action, with the characters destroying themselves from within rather than the infected destroying them from without. Throughout the final sequence, we see the characteristics of the infected and the human characters come disturbingly close to one another, represented by one particularly grotesque kill at the end (you’ll know the one I’m talking about). The behavior of the infected, while carnal and savage, we see reflected in the human characters–both do violence to preserve themselves.
Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later seem to have few similarities. Both are about young men set loose in a world without sufficient guidance, having to make their own way via intelligence and determination, but that is kind of a broad similarity. Why did I choose to examine 28 Days Later in reference to Boyle’s nomination? Because it bristles with the same energy and excitement of Slumdog, the excitement of a director who is truly happy to be making a movie with the subject matter he has been given.
Boyle has made a broad array of films: Slumdog, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, Millions. Whenever I have seen him in interviews or listened to him on commentary tracks, I have always gotten the same impression: the guy is simply excited about making movies. In making them, he diffuses an infectious energy that captivates the viewer and carries them along for the ride. Slumdog Millionaire is not my favorite film of the year, but when I think about how much I enjoyed it and how well it was made, I am absolutely fine with it winning best picture. There are few directors that could take a story like that, navigating the darkness to find something beautfiful beneath, and make it work with you believing every step of the way. Danny Boyle, God bless him, is one of them.
I didn’t think he would win this early, particulary after Sunshine, but when he does, I hope he keeps doing things his way. We have a potential Lumet emerging.