There are few directors working who are harder to nail down than Danny Boyle. His films have run the gamut of topics from his first big success with the drug addled “Trainspotting” to his Oscar winning “Slumdog Millionaire.” Boyle tends to jump genres and alter his shooting style with nearly every film. However all of his movies have a very definite feel and energy to them, something that is rather intangible but definitely present. He brings his distinct energy to a true story in “127 Hours.” It’s a story that on paper should never be able to work as a film, but the spark that Boyle and his lead actor, James Franco, bring the film make it something very special.
“127 Hours” deals with the young and athletic Aron Ralston (Franco.) Ralston is a bit of an adrenaline junkie, with mountain climbing and exploring canyons his own personal preferred means of entertainment. His latest trip is to a canyon in Utah, which he visits for fun without letting any of his family or friends know where he’s going. He’s not trying to run away from his home life, he’s just not the kind of person to leave a note. While there he has some good times, running into some other hikers along the way. Once he sets out again on his own things take a very bad turn. A boulder comes loose and pins Ralston’s right arm against the canyon wall. He soon realizes that he’s too deep in the canyon and too far off the normal trails for somebody to simply come by and rescue him. As the hours become days and his small supply of food and water run out Ralston begins to hallucinate before resorting to extreme measures in order to survive.
Based on the premise alone “127 Hours” should not work as a film. While the situation is certainly a tense one that idea of a 90 minute film in which the lead character, in fact the only character for most of the movie, cannot move could very easily get boring very quickly. However boring is one word that could never be used to describe this particular film. Boyle keeps things lively through Ralston’s own energy and desperation but also through basically letting the viewer into Ralston’s mind. Through the use of flashbacks and eventually hallucinations the viewer gets a deeper look at Ralston that also keeps things from getting stale. These flashbacks never feel forced, because they’re presented in a way that it’s clear that these are the things that Ralston himself is thinking about and remembering as his situation worsens. While the flashbacks and editing keep things lively they never become spastic or intrusive to the story at hand and the film never lets the viewer forget that no matter what is happening in his mind Ralston is still trapped. It’s also quite interesting that Ralston openly acknowledges to his little video camera that he’s as much to blame for where he is as the boulder itself. He’s never shown to be a whiny or self pitying character and his ownership of his own failings makes him a protagonist that works extremely well.
“127 Hours” director Danny Boyle made the wise choice to not try to play up any elements of surprise. Ralston’s story became fairly well known at the time it happened. It became even more so when the publicity for the film, including the star and director, made no secret about what Aron eventually did to free himself. So rather than going for any kind of suspenseful “how will he get out of this?” feeling Boyle instead puts special emphasis on little moments that will reinforce just how difficult Ralston’s actions were. It starts early when Ralston is looking for his sharp Swiss Army knife before leaving for his trip but doesn’t find it and goes on without it. There’s a number of simple things done to drive home how dull the blade on the multi-tool that will eventually be used to save his life is. Seeing Ralston dull it further by trying to chip away at the boulder is almost as painful to watch, knowing how it affects what comes later, as the big moment itself. Without getting into gruesome detail that moment is extremely intense. No matter whether or not a viewer knows what is to come and even if they prepare themselves for it, the moment itself is drawn out and difficult to watch. This is an unflinching segment that will be a big turn off for some more casual viewers who might have otherwise enjoyed the film. It’s grotesque and painful but also fully justified to be on film in the way it is presented. What ultimately sells it though, more than the gore, is Franco’s extremely intense performance. Say what you will about his appearance at the Oscars but he definitely earned his nomination.
“127 Hours” is not always an easy film to watch due to it’s brutally honest and intimate portrayal of human suffering. Ultimately though the film is not about the suffering, it’s about one man who refused to simply lay down and die when that would have been the easier (and probably less painful) thing to do. There’s a celebration and a triumphant feel to the film that is extremely rewarding. Franco gives what is undoubtedly his best performance to date. Boyle has managed to craft a beautiful film out of what should be an unfilmable situation, and for those who aren’t afraid of being made to squirm a little it’s well worth seeing.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5