With each movie he makes, with every motion picture flight of fancy he embarks on, Danny Boyle continues to cement his status as one of our greatest living directors, if not the very best. His choices have been inspired (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), he’s skipped across genres with effortless aplomb (the smart sci-fi of Sunshine, the grisly horror of 28 Days Later). Even within his considered flops (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach), he’s shown amazing skill and even better artistic instincts. Now comes his first post-Oscar response, 127 Hours, a smart, surrealistic look at real life adrenalin junkie and mountain climber Aron Ralston and the celebrated case of self-mutilation that saved him from a cavernous, claustrophobic death.
While not knowing him specifically by name, many are aware of the 24 hour news cycle surrounding Ralston. His is the story of an amiable adventurer who found himself trapped under a boulder while hiking in Utah. After more than five days of dehydration, hunger, and little hope of rescue, Ralston grabbed his trusty pocket knife, sawed through his ensnared arm, and stumbled to freedom – and finally, safety. Rescued, he had lost a limb, but somehow salvaged the rest of his life. Boyle focuses on this facet of the narrative, allowing his capable star, James Franco, to free associate on what week’s worth of near death experiences would be like. Together, they forge a kaleidoscope of conflicts that lead to a series of stunning personal revelations.
Granted, it is tough for Boyle to sell us on the cinematic nature of this story. Franco as Ralston is barely given time to register as a character before he is smiling at a couple of fetching female climbers, sharing a wholesome afternoon in an underwater lagoon, and then losing himself in that deep, dark fissure. 127 Hours then spends a lot of time in the minutia – the amount of water Ralston has left, how much mobility he has in his arm, what helpful supplies can he still access and use, and most importantly, how much battery power he has left in his video camera. As elder part of the YouTube generation, the doomed climber understands the value in keeping a digital keepsake. Not only is it a way of being remembered, but it acts as a link to the civilized world his wanderlust left behind. Besides, it might just keep him sane.
Together, both director and star being the process of building backstory, of showing us the family Ralston left behind, the people who are important to him, and the fever dream memories that flash before his/our eyes in mesmerizing snippets. Staying within his frenetic, rapid fire approach, Boyle keeps us engaged and anticipatory. The suspense isn’t built on if or when Ralston will free himself (the title spoils that already). Instead, it’s all a question of how – how anyone almost dead from exhaustion and the elements find the inner courage to work a tiny, almost useless blade through his flesh and find a way to fight? Even more alarming is the precarious post-mortem, when Ralston has to walk his way to help. As he stumbles, bloody stump secured by rags and duct tape, we see the resilience of the human spirit in all its unpredictable promise.
By his own admission, Boyle has set out to make an action movie with a man who can’t move, and he manages that seemingly impossible task remarkably well. The use of angles and editorial juxtaposition, the dialogues that Franco has with the mini-lens allows us to recognize the battle without witnessing the actual war. Again, the outcome is known, and we can see the cyclical nature of the narrative’s reminder of threat and potential danger. Everything in 127 Hours is tactile – the sound of water rushing out of a plastic bottle, the echo of a dulling knife blade scraping a boulder – and when you add in Ralston’s rambling, stream of consciousness reflections, the effect is to place us directly in harm’s way. We instantly sympathize with our hero’s plight because Boyle makes sure we are ‘stuck’ with him as well.
It’s important to note how terrific Franco is here. He still trades on his pretty boy persona, but this time it’s for a different effect. We are supposed to see how strong and virile Ralston is, to wonder in amazement as his obvious physical skills subvert and eventually fail to serve him. In those quieter moments, in the scenes centered around the hopeless cause and his continuing faith, Franco is subtle but strong. His work is so sly that it takes more than one viewing to appreciate its invention. He’s not just some fun loving “dude” destined to come face to face with his own worst fear (he’s not invincible) and in a world wired web world, he’s still capable of being undermined by the wilderness he constantly taunts.
Boyle’s bravado is definitely an acquired taste, but like a fine aged Scotch, it’s a pleasure to indulge. His imagination is boundless, and when faced with such a structured, known quantity, he avoids all the typical man vs. nature trappings. One could easily see how something like 127 Hours could go wrong. It could turn into a middling movie of the week with the internal monologue rendering orally, not via a series of more and more creative ancillary outlets. As he has with other standard subjects – addiction, poverty, greed, paranoia – Boyle looks for the approach less anticipated. While Ralston does address the audience, he’s not breaking the fourth wall. In fact, we often feel like interlopers in a very private and particularly unsettling situation.
As it spins us round and forces us to reevaluate our perspective, 127 Hours becomes one of 2010’s most compelling works. It doesn’t always pull off its weird high wire act, but when it does, the results literally leap off the screen. Boyle has a tendency to be such a risk taking daredevil, an inclination he shares with his subject this time around. The director could easily have found himself stuck between a rock and a peculiar plotting hard place. Instead, he summons up his award winning courage and countermands every one of our expectations. 127 Hours is not a perfect film, but it’s a death defying feat of motion picture magic to be sure.