The Danny Boyle Vertus

Oh Danny Boyle, who continues to direct films which leave me slack-jawed, squinty-eyed, and thinking “what in the Christ king just happened here?”  As an ode to you, Danny Boyle, I will conceive of a single word to encapsulate all that is eerie and astounding, shocking and cathartic about your films.  The word is Boylesque. Yes, I know that Mr. Boyle can be over the top with his obsession with sensory stimulation, and that “Slumdog Millionare” was definitely not Oscar-worthy, but the man takes risks.  For me, his most satisfying and successful gambles are the ones in which he jeopardizes losing his audience to the sheer audacity and grandeur of his vision, and his most recent film, “127 Hours” is an example of this.

Perhaps a more refined director would opt for not explicitly showing Aron’s act of amputating his arm, complete with the nauseating sound of tendons snapping and bones breaking; they may decide to leave this horrendous act of self-mutilation to be envisioned in the audience’s own imagination.  But Mr. Boyle gives us the complete visceral experience because the pay-off is so cathartic.  When Aron finally cuts through his arm, he literally falls backwards, released from the burden of his own imprisoned flesh. That simple act of Aaron falling away from himself, the complexity of his simultaneous freedom and loss and the mixture of disgust and triumph that we feel may be Boyle’s most poignant “what the fuck” moment thus far.  Below are a few other notable Boylesque moments from “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine.”

What makes a Danny Boyle film Boylesque?

1. Danny Boyle makes films which unfold as if they will never end.  And you never want them to end.
2. His films explore the conflict of Humans vs. Themselves vs. Nature vs. God but ultimately Humans vs. Themselves.
3. As with every film, Danny Boyle’s films always have a crisis.  Except that  Boyle’s crises are of colossal and unfathomably grave proportions.
“28 Days Later:” Crisis=worldwide viral infection which is transforming the human population into rage-induced, blood-spewing versions of their former selves.
“Sunshine:” Crisis= The sun is dying, therefore, we are dying.  Hence the film’s eponymous title.  Oh Danny Boyle, your frankness is another trait to cherish!

The Vertus
Above all, there is the Boylesque “My God, Danny Boyle!!” moment.  This moment usually occurs midway through a Danny Boyle film and is the plot’s turning point, which we  English majors like to fancifully call the vertus.  In Latin, vertus means “turn,” and in literature,  the term describes the turning point in a poem.  If you’ve read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” you know what I’m talking about.  It’s the moment in a poem where what you’re reading veers suddenly towards the shocking, unsettling, and often macabre.

There is a definite vertus that occurs in both “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” although the turns go in opposite directions.  For an explanation of both films’ verti (correct Latin plural, sorry if I sound stuck up-think “hippopotami”), please continue reading below.

People Killing People
We already know going into “28 Days Later” that it is a zombie film, so as disturbing and terrifying as this element is, we are not overly surprised when we first encounter the enraged un-dead.  Furthermore, it is completely logical for us to neatly label zombies as the villains of the film.  Thus, the only natural “good guys” of the story must certainly be anyone who is not a zombie.  Enter Jim (Cillian Murphy) and some stray survivors, including a father and his daughter, Hannah, and Selena, a machete-wielding pessimist.

When Jim and friends are “rescued” by an uninfected branch of the British military, our instincts emit the safe signals. That is, until the camera meaningfully lingers on the huge, contorted sculpture of a man with a writhing serpent between his legs that is strategically located at the antechamber of the soldiers’ “safe house.” Another scene that foreshadows the impending vertus  involves a sexually charged soldier lasciviously taunting Selena and Hannah (that Hannah is only 15 years old emphasizes the perversity of the soldier).  Almost as an aside, the captain subtly and secretly warns the soldier not to stop, but to “slow down.”

The vertus lies within the film’s reversal of expectations: the military base becomes a house of horrors for Hannah and Selena as they realize that instead of being eaten alive by zombies, they will be continually tortured and raped by men whom are literally dying for female flesh.   Boyle’s message is that humans don’t need to be infected with a rage virus to harm one another; people have always killed people since the beginning of time, as one philosopher soldier observes.  This notion is by no means a new theme in film, nor in actual life.  But it is Boyle’s precise method of delivery and sense of pacing and suspense that gives this realization such jarring and upsetting power.

And Now for Something Completely Freakish
“Sunshine’s” vertus works in much the same formula as “28  Days Later,” except it takes the plot into completely unexplored territory.  We can thank the character of Pinbacker, a self-made demigod of the Sun, for “Sunshine’s” majestic vertus, which is one of the most (ADJECTIVE ALERT!) shocking, chilling and utterly confounding moments I have ever witnessed on film.

We already have our apocalyptic plot: the death of “our largest star.”  We have our crisis: crew members of the Icarus II are sent to save the Sun and ultimately forced into stoically discussing which crew members to kill off in order survive on limited oxygen.  But, unlike “28 Days Later” where the vertus spins us from the sensational premise of zombies to the mundane horror of sexually desperate military men, “Sunshine” steers from the rational effects of nature  (humans killed the sun, are forced to kill each other) to  nature’s sensational effect on one man: Pinbacker, the once human captain of the failed Icarus I mission, now a demon of the sun.  And it is Boyle’s vision of Pinbacker which makes “Sunshine’s” vertus so sensational, and even supernatural.

Unlike the realism of the soldiers’ situation in “28 Days Later,”,  Pinbacker’s human form has transformed into an entity that is other-worldly (literally) due to intense and obsessive self exposure to the Sun.  Our fist glimpse of him is through the eyes of Kapa (Cillian Murphy), engulfed in a white light so bright that we are squinting, unable to discern whether the form is human or alien.  Next, we hear Pinbacker breathing; shallow, wet, raspy gasps which give the impression that he’s inhaling his own melting insides.  As Kapa approaches close enough to discern that the horrifically burned figure is human, the unbelievable truth finally dawns on him:

Kapa: “My God….my God…..Pinbacker.”

Pinbacker: “Not your God.  Mine.”

In those nine words we have our “what in the Christ-King is going on heeeerrrrre!?” moment; in other words, our Boylesque vertus.

The first time we have an honest to God  look at Pinbacker is through a glass window on a closed door.  His hand rests on the door, very much human, except nothing is left but scarred, bloody, raw flesh.  In contrast, his face is indiscernible; it jitters and stretches, possessed with some kind of stellar energy.  His sun-scarred eyes, however, remain focused amidst the chaos of the rest of his body, his gaze searing through the window.   Boyle’s haunting image of Pinbacker, a man driven mad by the inescapable omnipotence of the Sun, is more horrifying than the pure rage and raw bloodiness of “28’s” zombies.  Why is it so horrifying?  Because, like the soldiers,  Pinbacker is human.

In all respects, Danny Boyle is a fearless film maker. He isn’t afraid to unearth the disturbing fact that even in a world free of zombies, of natural disasters, of global warming, humans are still left with the primal fear of each other. He places a mirror in our faces and asks, “Scared yet?”  And that is what’s truly terrifying.

Oh, Danny Boyle, thanks for the pick me up!


About Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa's film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. View all posts by Vanessa Graniello

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