Mountain Climber Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) usual canyoneering trip around the Moab, Utah mountainsides goes wrong as he finds himself trapped in a canyon with a boulder crushing his right hand. As all hopes dries up with his supplies, he takes desperate measures to escape his situation.
When Danny Boyle announced he was to adapt Aron Ralston’s story-of-survival Between A Rock And A Hard Place for a feature film, many were dubious. In the wake of Oscar glory with Slumdog Millionaire the world was finally waiting for him to make his much talked about Bond movie. On paper, 127 Hours sounds like a prospect a million miles away from 007, but Boyle’s decision to shoot it like an action movie has paid off, delivering one of the most purely exciting films of recent years. With pulse-pounding music, vibrant photography and sweeping camerawork, Boyle’s film has all the intensity and visceral thrill of any Bond movie, but more emotion than even the finest entries in that series.
The third claustrophobic thriller of recent months, 127 Hours avoids the back-to-basics minimalism of Rodrigo Cortés Buried, and the clichéd slasher-mechanics of Devil, but its ace card is in being based on a true story. Nobody’s imagination was allowed to run away, nor was there any shortage of ideas – page for page, blow for blow, Ralston was on-hand to help Boyle’s cast and crew relive every painful moment. The flashbacks may seem like a weak storytelling device but Boyle’s inventive use of them makes 127 Hours stand out from the crowd. Flashbacks can be a hackneyed device; a rather twee way to shoehorn in exposition. Boyle takes an original approach, not taking us out of the moment for a flashback, but framing them within the canyon where Ralston is trapped, so that we may see his physical reaction to them. Rather than seeing his mind projected as a fairytale memory, we’re watching his emotional engagement with the past. The memories may be fond (clichéd father/son bonding) but they take on a nightmarish quality when placed within the confines of what may be Ralston’s grave. It’s a smart move that Boyle devised late in the process (in fact, during shooting) but none of this would have been possible without James Franco.
Franco has been underrated for a while now, with most regarding his wooden performance as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man trilogy to be the highlight of his career thus far. Not so. His performances in Tristan + Isolde, Pineapple Express and Milk have all shown an unexpected range and admirable dedication to the material, whatever its strengths or weaknesses. In 127 Hours he delivers his finest performance yet – both sympathetic and infuriating, it’s more like watching a person than a performance. He starts the film with abundant energy and charm, the All-American adventurer in his physical peak. He’s an actor with confidence and charisma to spare, and watching that slowly drain away in the latter scenes of the film is a pretty emotional experience. Noticeably dehydrated and gaunt, Franco really invests Ralston with a strength that makes his deterioration all the harder to watch. As he becomes paler and more desperate, on the verge of giving up, the film pulls an audacious move in having Ralston imaginging himself presenting a game-show where he is the main contestant. With theme music and audience cheers he presents his dilemma to camera. He begins self-deprecating, before admitting to himself his stupidity in not telling anyone where he was going. In a flash regret washes over his face. “Oops” he says, with an intense sadness. It’s heartbreaking.
As well as the flashbacks Boyle employs a number of other neat tricks – the opening sequence is a split-screen of flurried action – sped up footage of freeways and city life juxtaposed with preparation for the journey he’s about to undertake. The music, by A.R. Rahman, is fist-pumpingly energetic and when we open to the great orange valleys of Utah, the spectacle is amazing. The scenery is really awe-inspiring, captured by cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, both on commanding form. The original intent was for the photography styles to clash, as Aron’s fate become more undecided – in this sense, the visuals were to act as the films antagonist. This idea fails, but the result is actually more interesting – Dod Mantle and Chediak find a chemistry in their images that gives the film a bold visual flavour from beginning to end. It seems like every idea, every visual trick, has a counterbalance. This, combined with Boyle’s camerawork (swooping shots of desert and canyons) makes the opening 15 minutes a visceral assault on the senses, employing all of his usual stylistic techniques – fast-moving camera, rich colours, quick edits and frequent music cues. There’s even a shot from inside a straw – which stays static as the liquid from Ralston’s flask rushes toward camera to his lips.
In a way, the amputation scene is the most uninteresting part of the film – it’s boldly uncompromising, sure, and performed in medical detail, but it’s the most typically conventional scene. Not in a narrative sense – we want Ralston to escape, and the true story dictates that he does. But it’s where Boyle loses his grasp on the material. Aron begins by digging into his arm with the knife, eventually exposing flesh which he continues to pick and cut at. It must have taken hours; the pain excruciating. And although Boyle shoots that footage close-up it’s edited within an inch of its life, and Chediak’s photography is decidedly dark. The scene is at least three minutes long but it feels like much less, because of the clever editing that hides some of the really extreme stuff – it takes away some of the impact. 127 Hours does end on a redemptive note though. Boyle has always had a way with music (think of ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, 1996) and his choice of ‘Festival’ by Sigur Rós for the uplifting finale is perfect. A nine-minute track that begins in absorbing ambience and crescendos into life-affirming beauty, it’s a perfect note to end the film on. Well, not quite end. The last shot shows us footage of the real-life Ralston, informing us (as all true stories do) of his current whereabouts and activity. ‘Aron continues to climb’ it tells us, ‘but he always leaves a note’….
127 Hours is out now