Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kate Burton
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer(s): Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak, Anthony Dod Mantle
Original Score: A.R. Rahman
Running Time: 94 mins.
Danny Boyle is, without an iota of doubt, an auteur, each of his films from Shallow Grave through to Slumdog Millionaire can be marked out as Boyle films, sharing concepts, themes, tone and most strikingly his kinetic and dynamic visual style. What marks his films out as unique in a sense is that while they are all of the above they are also in the same breath hugely different, mostly set within different genres and very rarely utilizing the same set of actors, or single actor, as an auteur often does. 127 Hours follows this pattern to the T, starring James Franco with whom Boyle has never worked and concerning a story of survival (a recurring theme) that is as different from Slumdog’s story of survival as a horror film is from a comedy. This is a different genre representation of a theme Boyle clearly clings so fondly too, our will to survive by any means possible as human beings.
The story of Aron Ralston would not seem a particularly neat fit for Boyle’s kinetic and energetic style, a are-devil free spirit Ralston is/was a keen extreme sports fan who owing to a tragic turn of events becomes stuck, as his book is entitled, quite literally between A Rock and a Hard Place, meaning what follows after a typical Boyle-like flurry of split-screen and hugely energetic build up that sees Ralston cycle carelessly across mountain terrain and cliff dive into pools of water is a prolonged 80 minutes of Ralston stuck wedged in a narrow mountain crevice with his arm crushed and nowhere to move. Imagine, if you will, Buried but instead of a coffin we have rocks, and the added emotIonal thrust that this is a true story and Ralston is a much more likeable human being, if a little too cocky and care-free for his own good.
What Boyle has managed to do is craft an intimate character piece around an intense and, at times, nauseating cinema experience that sees Ralston segue from one emotion to the next without over-reacting (or over acting on Franco’s part) though to be fair given his situation it would be slightly unfair to consider any action an over-reaction! Obviously when your dealing with a film that is largely a one-hander it helps to have someone capable of being engaging to watch, despite their flaws as a person, and likeable enough to want to spend 90 minutes alone with them. Franco manages this exceptionally well, mining emotional depths previously only glimpsed in the likes of Spider-Man, this should be his break-out role and quite possibly the first to earn him an Oscar nod. He does what all the greats have managed and that is to embody a role, particularly hard when said person is a “real” person, and become Aron Ralston, making the audience forget they are watching James Franco the actor and being fully immersed in the story.
To flesh out the story, and running time, Boyle intercut’s using his plethora of tricks, jump-cuts, split-screen, excellent use of lighting (helped no end by Anthony Dod Mantle once more), and it is here oddly enough that the film has a tendency to lose its way if only sporadically and for minutes at a time. It is commendable that the decision to shoot Aron’s hallucinations/dreams/visions as a sequential story is resisted, with glimpses of various family/friends/colleagues/lovers being shown offering up a basis for the kind of person that Aron is rather than another narrative strand, however it is largely unsuccessful and fails to engage against the convincing turn by Franco himself, distracting from his circumstance somewhat and staggering the tension as it builds and is often cut-short for another vision.
Thankfully this is not enough to diminish the film in a substantial way, rather it suggests Boyle wasn’t quite sure how to handle a story that while gripping needed foundation in character development and decided to experiment, an approach that bears little fruition on this occasion but is commendable none-the-less with the aspect that work, working beautifully such as the devastation of a storm that is shot with the style and verve you would expect of a master in his prime. Only a handful of directors are able to really shake up a film with the visuals and in the final third when Ralston has to do the unimaginable, with a pair of pliers and a blunt pen-knife, that I am sure you have heard about you will be wincing appropriately while you yearn for the man to free himself, not an easy watch but a kinetic and frenzied one that is in a class of its own on the most part.
The story of Aron Ralston is at once an odd and a perfect fit for Boyle’s inimitable style and kinetic visuals, it is exactly this that makes 127 Hours a riveting and harrowing watch, there are elements that don’t quite gel but on the whole this is a commendable and unique study of the strength of the human spirit.