How do you make a compelling film about a man trapped in the exact same spot for 5 days? What would even make you think such a film could be made? In other words, what is it like to be Danny Boyle? In his last offering, Boyle captured the hearts of audiences (and the Academy) with his spirited fairy tale “Slumdog Millionaire,” which sprinted alongside its protagonist Jamal across the Indian sub-continent with such energy and verve the frame practically exploded. With “127 Hours,” Boyle sought to somehow transfer his highly kinetic abilities to what is for the most part a one-man chamber piece.
If you’ve been under a rock for the past decade or so (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and somehow missed Aron Ralston’s fifteen minutes of fame, here’s the whole story, which Boyle breezes through in a sprightly 95 minutes: Ralston, a brash, self-confident young outdoorsman, went hiking in Blue John Canyon in Utah back in 2003. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and had no cell phone, making rescue absolutely impossible when a dislodged boulder fell against his arm and pinned it inextricably against the canyon wall. After 127 hours of sipping at what little water he had left, futilely attempting to dislodge the boulder, and awaiting death, Ralston finally amputated his lower arm using a dull pocket knife from a cheap multi-purpose tool. As if that weren’t enough, he somehow proceeded to rappel down a 65-foot sheer wall and hike several miles out of the canyon before encountering two Swiss tourists who called for help. A helicopter rescued Ralston another six hours later.
There are two ways to go about making such a movie. You could film it with crushing realism, employing an almost documentary style to recreate the feeling of claustrophobia and hopelessness for the audience. Such an approach would probably require a three-hour run time minimum to reach the intended mood, and would certainly make for a less-than-thrilling cinematic experience. Or you could go Boyle’s route, and stuff the film with flashbacks, dreams and hallucinations to keep the tone somewhat frisky no matter what the realities of the situation.
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, so as long as Boyle stuck to the particular vision he chose, I wasn’t going to fault him for it. And sure enough, “127 Hours” is consistently bold and energetic, fraught with absurdly colorful cinematography, self-consciously manic editing and a generally bounding soundtrack (with a splash of inspirational swells for critical moments thrown in by composer A.R. Rahman). As always, to speak well of a Danny Boyle is to praise an extraordinary technical achievement, as his entire production crew has risen to the challenge of broadening this cramped drama to landscape proportions.
But of course, no matter what filmic finagling goes on behind the camera, the concept would still fall flat on its face without a bravura performance from the actor playing Ralston. For an hour and a half, we are thrown completely into this one man’s world, and with (literally) little room to maneuver (barely any other actors to interact with,and hardly any reason, in fact, to speak at all), we MUST be made to care deeply, tragically, whole-heartedly about this one man if his plight is to have any resonance whatsoever. James Franco, long thought to be a promising up-and-comer despite his association with the “Spider-Man” franchise, is exceptional. Franco’s natural charisma perfectly conveys Ralston’s initial cockiness and self-assurance, while the actor’s peculiarities are eminently suitable for a surreal scene in which Ralston interviews himself via camcorder.
Franco’s performance and its emotional subtleties are also critical because, visual master though he is, Boyle is not one to blur his message when it comes to the point. The director hits the “no man is an island” chord pretty hard, and a certain image, a vision of all his family and friends gathered in one place, is all right the first time it’s used but smacks of heavy-handedness once it’s repeated. But luckily, there’s a tricky move in the screenplay that I think has gone much unnoticed: I don’t think the amputation scene is necessarily the climax of the film.
Let me explain: the same qualities that led Ralston into his predicament with the boulder are much the same ones that get him out of it. Think about it: the same resourcefulness, determination and self-confidence that clearly attracted him to the wilderness life are what lead him to cut off his arm; desperation alone would NOT get you to that point. The amputation scene is one of the most excruciatingly visceral things I’ve ever seen on film. As we watch one gruesome shot after another, the effect is suspenseful, even shattering: he’s struggling, he’s struggling, the pain and effort is tremendous, and then – he’s free. That’s it. The music goes quiet; the moment is completely muted. This is no denouement. He has escaped his imprisonment, yes; but really, nothing has changed. Nothing about Ralston has changed, in any case. The true emotional climax, the true payoff, does not come until a few minutes later, when, staggering out of the canyon, Ralston spies other hikers ahead of him, and grasping for his last inch of strength, finally manages to get their attention with a cry of “I need help!” Brash, self-absorbed Aron Ralston is no more. He needs help. It’s a wonderful bit of narrative construction that gets Boyle’s point across more effectively than some of the more overt symbolism.
I can think of little more to add, so let me just conclude that viewers should watch for the absolutely thrilling rainstorm sequence, and that anyone desiring to watch “127 Hours” should probably not do so directly before a) eating, b) sleeping or c) really doing much of anything that requires thought. Trust me, you won’t be able to think of anything else for at least a couple hours.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars