Dir: Danny Boyle
Fox Searchlight Pictures
It’s a toss-up between two scenes: Ewan McGregor dives into a toilet in Trainspotting to retrieve some drugs or when a child jumps into a shit-filled hole in Slumdog Millionaire to save a photo of his favorite Bollywood star. Either way, director Danny Boyle loves to smear our faces in shit.
I remember in 2003 when climber Aron Ralston emerged after more than five days being trapped in a Utah canyon. A boulder had fallen on his arm, an appendage that he would later cut off with a dull knife to escape certain doom. I shuddered when I read about the gruesome account in the newspaper seven years ago. Now, Boyle makes us want to live through it in 127 Hours.
Beginning with a hyperkinetic montage of people commuting to work, running from bulls in Pamplona and taking part in the Hajj, 127 Hours finally settles on Ralston (James Franco) preparing for a solo journey into Utah’s Blue John County. Maybe Boyle is still shaking off the pan-cultural kinks of Slumdog, but the opening really adds nothing to the film other than make the point that Ralston is a man outside the normal humdrum.
Has there been a filmmaker as obnoxiously masturbatory as Boyle since Oliver Stone’s run of films in the early ’90s? In the extended introduction leading up to the inevitable accident, Boyle’s camera chases Franco biking and jumping around Canyonlands National Park with the feel of a very well done documentary on extreme sports. I was just waiting for Franco to pause and sweat fluorescently in between his daredevil stunts.
Along the way he meets two young, female hikers and takes them to a cave where they can drop into the shimmering waters of an underground lake. The girls, enamored by this free spirit, invite him to a party later that night. “I don’t think we figured into his day at all,” one says to the other when they part ways, not only an augury of the horrors awaiting Ralston, but also referencing his self-sufficient nature.
For a film about a guy trapped in the same place for 127 hours, Boyle’s camera doesn’t adhere to the same fetters. Rather, he darts us in and out of caverns, follows ravens and films 127 Hours like an IMAX experience rather than a meditative feature on the nature of survival. He also gives us very little about Ralston, except that he is a dude who likes to live life on the edge.
Franco makes the most of a thin script, his desperation becoming more palatable as his water runs out and the clock ticks closer to his death. This is a one man show, and Franco sinks his teeth into the role, his trapped Ralston alternating between bewilderment to gallows humor to out and out terror. We soon live inside that crevice with Ralston, enjoying the 15 minutes of sun that flood his new home each day, fretting as his water supply vanishes and he must drink his own urine to stay hydrated and finally shuddering as Ralston must decide between his arm and his life. And when the arm-cutting scenes finally come, Boyle does not spare us the grotesqueness.
Maybe Boyle underestimates his audience but unlike a film such as No Country for Old Men, he doesn’t allow us the quiet space of the American West. Rather than let us experience the lonely quiet of those five days in the canyon with Ralston, Boyle fills the empty space with camera trickery and hallucination. The score by A.R. Rahman is intrusive at best and Sigúr Rós does nothing but add emotional bombast to the rescue scene.
While 127 Hours allowed me to visualize and cringe at Aron Ralston’s horror story, I can’t say I experienced the fear and solitude that soaked up those five days. If Boyle just chilled the fuck out, took a step back and let us breathe with Ralston, taste that bitter panic and hopelessness, not only would we better understand the horror of 127 Hours, but also truly rejoice in the sweet satisfaction of escape rather than be told how to feel.
by David Harris