Leave it to Danny Boyle to take a story about a guy with his arm trapped under a boulder for just shy of six days and turn it into the most dynamic film of year, one that is simply bursting with energy, humor, and spirit.
127 Hours details the story of Aron Ralston, the infamous rock-climber and outdoor adventurer who found himself stuck in a canyon, his right hand pinned between an immovable boulder and an unyielding wall of rock. Aron made the regrettable decision (that has since made him a joke among serious rock climbers) not to inform anyone of where he was going, thus any kind of rescue was simply not going to happen. After the fifth day, his condition quickly declining, Aron made the decision to amputate his own arm with a dull knock-off multi-tool and make his way back to civilization. This simple story, marked by a main character who spends much of the tale with a net displacement of zero, becomes a visually stunning film that never bores and even manages to avoid Danny Boyle’s trademark third act derailment.
Boyle’s wisest move in making “an action movie in which the hero doesn’t move” was casting James Franco as that action hero. Franco practically vibrates in this film, all arms and legs and the jittery energy of any thrill-seeker on the edge of a new adventure. He fits right in with a film that immediately opens with a frame split in three, each division offering a different window into the hustle and bustle of the world as Aron prepares his things and drives out to the countryside to the pulsing rhythm of the excellent Free Blood track you’ve been hearing in the trailer. The triptych of energy and mass movement soon gives way to the flat tranquil planes of the Utah desert. Quiet and still though the environment may be, Boyle’s dual DPs use time lapses, tracking shots, and the sheer scale of the landforms to instantly instill drama in the gorgeous vistas and to match Franco’s reckless energy as he bikes across the rocks and sand.
The first dozen minutes or so are mostly free of dialogue, but soon Aron runs into a pair of attractive young women and Franco gets to pour on the charm. They all group up with Aron offering to show them a better path to their destination and surprising them with a beautiful underground lake. These scenes (which I imagine are an invention of the script, or at least an expansion on some smaller encounter Aron had) serve a number of purposes; here we are seeing Aron at his best and most in control of nature, revealing its secrets, all while being a charismatic (if extremely goofy) guy to watch. It makes the impact of his sudden helplessness to the same forces he so deftly leaps and crawls and climbs around that much more powerful. The film doesn’t dwell on this introductory stuff though and before you know it, Aron is back off on his own, climbing through the canyon. Then it happens.
What’s beautiful is how Boyle and the script treat the coming tragedy. We all know the story, so the big moment is teased from the very beginning of the film- in his house Aron carelessly feels around a high shelf and we see a giant, brand new swiss army knife sitting, almost monolithic at center frame as he paws around and eventually pulls down the closer and obviously cheaper multi-tool. Even moments before the climber takes his fateful fall, he is running his hands along the rock of the canyon wall, while the audiences keeps drawing in breaths, expecting the inevitable any moment. Despite the teasing and build up, when Aron falls it is sudden and unexpected- a quick cut to him adjusting his stance to climb down a narrow crack, he grasps the boulder, it lurches, and just like that Aron has fallen and his hand is trapped. There are no cheaply dramatic shots of the boulder as Aron approaches, or lame attempts at tension from the boulder shivering and moving before giving way- the fall is as shocking for us as it is for Aron.
From this point on 127 Hours spends the vast majority of its time in a couple dozen square feet of space as Aron experiences his five day, motionless journey. Make no mistake, 127 Hours doesn’t force itself to contend with the kind of conceptual discipline of something like Buried or Phone Booth, and instead shows us what is necessary to best understand Aron’s mental and physical state at any given time. Boyle is unafraid to shoot anything or from anywhere, no angle or object is left unexploited. For instance; macro shots from within Aron’s drinking pack and water bottle force us to experience every precious drop of consumed fluid (water while it remains, something a bit less potable when he gets desperate), while a hyperspeed traveling shot that flies from Aron all the way back the 20 miles to his car makes us have the same head-slapping realization that he left a Gatorade behind. There’s the CSI-style shot inside of Aron’s arm the first time he realizes how impossible it will be to cut through bone with the tool, and it’s perfect for that moment and never needlessly used again, the film instead finding another unique way to visually demonstrate the pain or difficulty. An intense hallucination later in the film starts out realistic and grounded and slowly unravels into something more vague and dream-like, until we realize, with Aron, that’s he’s simply seeing what he wants to see.With the use of different kinds of digital cameras, two equally positioned shooting units, and well-judged use of effects, Boyle has imbued his film with a freedom of camera that feels almost revolutionary. If you recall the looseness of Scorsese’s camera in Goodfellas and Casino (specifically the cocaine-snorting tube POV in the latter), Boyle’s own frenetic editing style in films like Slumdog Millionaire, and marry those with the enabling effect of cutting-edge filmmaking tech, you’ll get an idea how visually explosive this film is at times.
All of the sophisticated camera tricks and clever editing in the world would not cut it if the one face we see wasn’t convincing for a five day journey to the edge of starvation and shock though. Fortunately, Franco is up to the task and gives a nuanced performance that takes the character traits we witness in the first part of the film and believably warps them as his hunger, thirst, and desperation grow more intense. It’s remarkable how well the young actor manages to deliver Aron’s last messages to his loved ones into a digital camera in a manner that makes us understand those relationships without ever spelling out details. Instead of an easy, linear path towards Aron’s ultimate spiritual defeat, Franco realistically swings his mood throughout- good days and bad days. Even at his darkest, Aron is always entertaining to watch, and his wryly cracked jokes remind us of the unbreakable spirit that will soon help Aron survive (not to mention inflict on himself) the biggest trauma of his life.
Credit too must go to the sound team for a delicate and graceful soundtrack that amps up the details as the focus grows more narrow. From the barely-perceptible footsteps of an ant crawling over a knife, to the roaring power of a desert rainstorm, to the more ambiguous and ethereal sonic atmosphere of the hallucinations, nothing is covered without the the utmost care. Sound is also a big part of the climactic arm-severing sequence, with a horrifying take on the sound of Operation! backing up remarkable make-up effects. And while this is not the goriest film ever made (or even in theaters this year), the stories of people passing out in screenings can be credited to the intense realism of the amputation effects. This is a key sequence in the film, and it would sink the whole thing for Franco to suddenly start cutting into an obviously silicone and karo-syrup prosthetic sticking out of his shirt. Fortunately, this is A-Grade effects work, with anatomic detail down to the nerves.
As the film progresses towards its conceptually looser segments of thirst-induced craziness, there is a hint of the spastic tendencies that have stained, sometimes unforgivably, the third-acts of many of Boyle’s films. To his credits, the train stays on the rails, and the joyful freedom of the film’s conclusion manages to transition film narrative into reality in a truly lovely way that I won’t spoil here.
127 Hours is yet another strong contender for best film of a year that has seemed so lackluster, only to have a number of our best filmmakers release their most interesting and personal works yet. I don’t know if it is Boyle’s best film, but it’s definitely the most inspired application of his unique view of the world with a unique tale worth telling. Often exuberant, occasionally stomach-churning, and always optimistic, 127 Hours is a masterful application of big film-making to a small story.