I’ll be the first to admit that I underestimated Danny Boyle. The main reason I did mostly had to do with the fact that his breakout film, Trainspotting, felt like one in a incredibly long line of films that were trying very hard to replicate the energy and style of Quentin Tarentino. I’m pretty hostile toward Tarentino imitators, largely because they give a bad name to the real McCoy, but I was dead wrong to lump Boyle in with the Guy Richies of the world. The fact that his immediate follows to Trainspotting (A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach) were both widely regarded as flawed and the fact that some of his better later movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine had serious third-act problems. But in the last four years he seems to have perfected his style and has been on a real role. I loved Sunshine in spite of its unusual ending and while I might not have agreed that Slumdog Millionaire was deserving of an Oscar, it was certainly a very likable and energetic film. Now in 2010 Boyle’s has put out what might be his best movie yet, 127 Hours, the first great film of his that doesn’t seem to have some kind of central flaw that I need to overlook.
The film tells the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a hiker who found himself trapped at the bottom of a Utah canyon with his right arm wedged between a large rock and the canyon wall. The story was well circulated through the media and I’m not going to hesitate from talking about how the ordeal ends; he had to cut off his own arm with a dull pocket knife after five days in order to escape alive. I don’t know about most people, but I don’t know how desperate and delirious I’d have to be in order to reach the point where I could do that, this movie is all about what would lead someone to that place. It’s also about a young man who comes to learn something about himself over the course of the five days in that anyone, about his strengths and about the weaknesses that led him to this point in the first place.
There’s a lot to admire about 127 Hours but I particularly adored the film’s first reel. This short stretch of time shows Ralston beginning his ill-fated hike, meeting two attractive young lady hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) and bringing them on a little mini-adventure into an underground pool at the bottom of another area of the canyon. This section is brilliantly able to introduce this character and tell us what he’s all about; that he’s a cocky but capable adventurer who’s ultimately rather charming and good hearted. It also shows the positive side of the hobby that eventually leads him to grave injury, without a look at just how rewarding that wilderness adventuring can be for this guy you’d have a lot less sympathy for his predicament.
Once we finally get to the point where Ralston is trapped, the film becomes a one man show, but not dogmatically so. When I first heard about this project I envisioned a very raw and sparse movie along the lines of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, but Boyle has instead delivered the polar opposite of this. The film uses all variety of technical tricks like split screen, tricky cuts, manifested hallucinations, flashbacks, and it does it all without feeling like some kind of gimmicky music video. The film is mostly uninterested in accentuating either the claustrophobia or isolation of his predicament the way that the film Buried did earlier this year with a similar one-man premise. This is a really smart move, we already know everything we need to know about the horror of this situation by the sight of Ralston’s arm crushed by a boulder, we didn’t need more and the tricks that Boyle has employed serve both to bring out the psychological aspects of his distress. What’s more, Boyle seems to have really perfected his energetic style at this point, and this is bravura filmmaking of the kind that it likely takes a career to develop.
James Franco also proved to be an inspired choice to play Ralston, as he has just the right mix of legitimate acting chops and a sort of party-boy personality that’s inherent in the character. Probably the best thing he’s able to do is make Ralston, a character who easily could have come off as a reckless prick, into a genuinely likable personality that you want to see come out of his situation relatively unscathed. Once he’s in the canyon pinned under the rock, he’s able to bring all the pain and horror of that situation into his performance but he’s able to do it without constantly screaming and yelling. A lot of actors are given kudos for their restraint when they’re in quiet costume dramas, but it would seem to be even harder to show restraint when you’re playing someone in a situation as extreme as this, and that kind of restraint is exactly what Franco shows here. There’s an especially amazing scene in which Ralston is talking into a camcorder that he had brought along, and in a semi-delirious state begins interviewing himself as if he was a guest on a talk show. Franco brings just the right balance of madness and introspection into this scene; it’s a master-class for a quickly developing performer.
One thing that’s been a near constant throughout the career of Danny Boyle has been excellent music, whether it’s come in the form of a classic assembled soundtrack (Trainspotting) or in the form of an amazing score (28 Days Later, Sunshine), and this is no exception. The music was composed by A.R. Rahman, the man behind Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar winning score. It was a choice of composer that genuinely baffled me when I heard about it, but it’s actually an inspired choice; Rahman proves here that he’s a versatile musician capable of much more than simply adding Bollywood flair to movies about India. Rahman has made a score that’s heavy on acoustic guitars and unafraid of electronic additions, it’s not unlike what he did for Slumdog, but in a western context. I’m not usually one to rave about scores, but this one really jumped out at me, it created a genuine sense of menace throughout and really helped the movie out. If that weren’t enough, Boyle also adds in some really inspired popular music cues into the film that make this even better as a musical experience.
There seem to have been a lot of these stories of real life doomed adventurers recently. I already mentioned the Gus Van Sant film Gerry, which is partly a stylistic exercise and partly a story about people reaching a much more destructive point after a comparably long period of desperation. The movie that this is much more likely to be compared to is Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. That film covered a much longer portion of its protagonist’s life, and led up to his ultimate demise trapped in a remote section of Alaska. By the end of that film its protagonist reached a point where he realized that he had made a mistake and had he survived he likely would have come out of it stronger. 127 Hours is a movie about someone who did get that opportunity. As compelling as it can be as a survival story and as a thriller of sorts, it’s real strength is as a character study about a man who comes to realize that as strong as he can be, he’s not invincible. This makes it all the more triumphant when he’s finally able to yell “I need help” near the film’s end. Though he comes out of his situation maimed, we know that’s not the only way he’s changed.
**** out of Four