Over the last decade, the British director Danny Boyle picked up the torch dropped by Quentin Tarantino as the most exciting filmmaker of his generation. Bursting onto the scene in 1995, Boyle’s brilliantly gritty Shallow Grave is a dark meditation on what middle class Brits are capable of when tempted by riches. That film was followed by the wildly entertaining Trainspotting, a scary and funny inside job on the heroin subculture of Edinburgh.
Boyle’s later work, including big budget films like 28 Days Later and The Beach bristle with the hot edginess of his indie roots. In 2008, his sweeping Oscar triumph for Slumdog Millionaire was a unique moment for a visionary filmmaker.
Now in 2011, Boyle’s remarkable run has finally hit the wall. Based on a true story, 127 Hours stars James Franco as Aron Ralston, an outdoorsman and rock climber who falls through a canyon fissure and pins his arm beneath a boulder. Although it’s a gruesome tale of survival, Boyle somehow fails to make a compelling film out of this harrowing event.
Shot on location in the Utah desert near Moab, the British auteur seems lost in the American wilderness. Moab is canyon country, with a rough-hewn beauty that’s almost biblical in nature. This is John Ford territory, where behind every rock formation you expect to see John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards emerge from The Searchers.
One key failing of 127 Hours is Boyle’s inability to convey the grandeur of the setting. His muse flails around aimlessly and his Europop soundtrack sounds tinny and silly against the enormity of the Utah desert. The narrative is very similar to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. In both films, a young adventurer shuns society to challenge himself in the American West.
The similarity ends there, for Penn understands something that Boyle does not: when pitting man against nature, the setting is the story. We can only comprehend the man by witnessing the natural world from his point of view, experiencing the transcendent pull of the wilderness that draws him into danger.
Into the Wild is a great film because we understand the stakes involved. Penn reveals the wilds of Alaska and Arizona with its incandescent, surreal beauty. When Chris McCandless rejects the comforts of middle class life, we understand why.
In 127 Hours the setting is merely a backdrop, so we cannot comprehend why Ralston takes the risks that he does. As he volunteers to guide two lost college girls, Ralston comes across as an ego-driven adolescent. When he slips through a canyon fissure, the viewer has nothing at stake but a curious detachment. Ralston merely looks childish and reckless.
Most of the film is shot with Ralston (Franco) alone as he struggles to free his right arm from beneath a chalkstone boulder. The film occasionally cuts to brief flashbacks. Most of these flashbacks concern Ralston’s romantic attachments, yet past love affairs cannot explain how he wound up trapped in a desert canyon. Another problem is that Boyle is at his best when directing an ensemble, like the tense love triangle in Shallow Grave or the loutish band of addicts in Trainspotting.
Approximately 90-minutes in length, the first hour of 127 Hours crawls by with little tension or progression. But the film comes alive as it races towards its climax, as Ralston becomes more self-aware. With his water gone and time running out, Ralston mocks his own machismo in an interview with himself:
Q: Aron, how do you know so much?
A: Well, I volunteer for the rescue service. I’m a big fucking hard hero and I can do everything on my own, you see.
Q: I do see! Now is it true that despite…or maybe because you’re a big fucking hard hero, you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?
A: Ah, yeah, that’s absolutely correct.
A. Yeah, oops.
This mock interview is a tour de force for Franco and a turning point in the film. For the last 30-minutes, the film takes off. We’re suddenly committed to Ralston’s fate as he fights for his life with a savage will to survive, and we root for him. Yet the dreadful first hour of the film sinks it like a stone.
The indelible lasting image of 127 Hours is of a man desperately floundering against a boulder. In this case, that man is Danny Boyle, and the boulder is the high expectations of a meteoric career that has inexplicably crashed in the desert.