127 Hours (2010) dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams, Amber Tamblyn
By Alan Bacchus
There seems to be a trend recently of filmmakers challenging themselves with self-imposed cinematic constraints. Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried as the most extreme (and successful) having shot an entire film in a coffin. For Danny Boyle the challenge here is to make a film set almost entirely in a claustrophobic gorge, with one character trapped in between the rocks.
The main hurdle for Boyle is not the location or the isolation of his character but making the film entertaining when the audience knows exactly what happens. For those who don’t know, don’t read on, for those who have been tracking the film since it was announced we know it’s the true story of Aron Ralston a mountaineer/adventurer/thrill seeker who accidentally fell into a gorge and got stuck in between the rocks for 127 hours before committing a shocking act of self-surgery to get himself out. As such, can this film be entertaining knowing exactly how it plays out and where it will go? Thanks for Danny Boyle’s supreme storytelling skills the answer is yes.
The film opens with a typically energetic Danny Boyle sequence, a very bright and colourful split screen sequence representing the fast paced lifestyle of Aron. We then watch Ralston at home gathering his gear for his next adventure, a solo bike ride in a Utah canyon. Extreme closeups of Ralston’s procedure tells us he’s done this before, and that the speed with which he prepares means he also taking for granted the extreme danger of his endeavour. His carefree attitude will literally crash down when a slip of the foot causes a boulder to land down on top of him jamming his arm in between the rock face.
Boyle and his co-writer Simon (Slumdog) Beaufoy carefully craft the character from Ralston’s actions. Ralston approaches his predicament with intelligent logic and a bit of trial and error. He lays out his possessions in front of him to see what tools he has to work with, measures out his foot and water supply, along with a few cries for help which he knows will go unanswered.
By the 20mins mark when Ralston gets trapped Boyle appears to have cornered himself cinematically as well. What can Boyle possibly do to keep our interest up before he frees himself? We know it’ll take 127 hours, we know how he escapes, and so the suspense would appear to be zapped from Aron’s various attempts at escape. And so here is the genius and creativity of Boyle. Like Hitchcock self-imposing restraints in Lifeboat or Rope, and even Rodrigo Cortes equally brilliant Buried, Boyle creates a number of thrilling sequences involving the small details of Ralston’s predicament which have life-threatening stakes. For example, early on Ralston drops his knife on the ground, out of reach, the retrieval of which makes for a very tense sequence.
Boyle and Beaufoy cheat a little bit as well, giving Ralston a video camera to talk into and thus narrate his inner thoughts. Boyle flashes back to thoughts of his childhood like his life flashing before his eyes. Under anyone’s else direction these scenes could have betrayed the intensity of Ralston’s isolation. But seeing Ralston’s parents, girlfriends etc lay a solid foundation of emotional attachment to his character that we desperately want to see him escape.
And then there’s the amputation sequence which we all know is coming, and which Boyle effectively teases us with in a number of ways. Boyle spares us little and leaves almost nothing to the imagination. It’s James Franco though that sells the pain to us, and it’s his resolute desire not to die that gets us through this harrowing sequence. Once out, Boyle, who always has had a terrific ear for music, lays in a fantastic Sigur Ros track to convey the jubilee of Ralston’s release. A beautiful cathartic feeling overwhelms us which sends the film out with a bang in a way few filmmakers can do better.
127 Hours is graphic and you will likely find yourself with hands covering your eyes, but with your fingers slightly open to peak through. Because while it's wholly disturbing, it's like a trainwreck, mordidly fascinating and attractive at the same time. Cudos to Boyle for choosing this film as his follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, a modest, small scale production, but also a demanding and risky cinematic challenge.