This is one of the best movies of 2010. Accordingly, I wrote what I hope to be one of my better and deeper film appraisals to date. Please let me know if you get the chance to read it, either before or after you see the movie.
“Could you cut off your own arm to save your life?”
The majority of the reviews of 127 Hours — Danny Boyle’s newest film about the harrowing true-life incident in which young mountain climber Aron Ralston (played in the movie by James Franco) was trapped under a boulder and forced to do just that — will no doubt focus on that primal and unsettling question.
Most of you will probably answer no, you couldn’t. I think you probably could, and the movie seems to agree. 127 Hours makes a compelling case as to the drastic measures a human being might be able to take once trapped in a truly desperate situation, but ultimately, that’s still not what 127 Hours is about. Astonishingly, 127 Hours has much bigger, much more profound questions in mind.
127 Hours is about the truly important things: Family, friendship, the bond between siblings, the tragedy of lost love and missed opportunities, the nature of man, the glory of nature, optimism, endurance, perserverance, and the salvation that comes from a good sense of humor.
But I’m actually going to let all the other reviews cover those topics. 127 Hours is about one more thing that not as many people will cover, so let’s talk about filmmaking.
We’ll start with Danny Boyle, a director whose filmography to date includes Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later…, Millions, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire. No sequels (yet), no comic book adaptations (yet). This isn’t a guy who’s interested in making the same movie twice. This isn’t a guy who seems to be too afraid of risk-taking. Quibble over the merits about some of those films if you will, but to my mind there are a couple instant classics on that list, and there’s not a one that wasn’t at least interesting and unlike any other director’s work. I’m a fan, I think you can tell.
So Danny Boyle wins the Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire. Actually he wins a few of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle), Music (A.R. Rahman), Sound, and Editing. Then he gets back to work. Aron Ralston wrote a memoir about his now-famous experience, called Between A Rock And A Hard Place. Danny Boyle drafts a script with Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy – which is interesting for fans of this particular auteur, because as far as I can tell, this is the first time Boyle has taken a screenwriting credit.
I remember when Ralston’s story hit the news. It was all people could talk about for a minute there. It was huge news. (Then Kim Kardashian had sex with somebody and people seemed to forget about it.) But for a brief media moment there, people were contemplating some big questions – mortality, sacrifice, personal responsibility – questions worth asking. Mostly, I’m sure, people were asking themselves that question — “Could I cut off my own arm to save my life?” And because the book was a best-seller, somewhere off in the west, where the movies are made, a smaller group of people were asking themselves, “Is this a movie?”
The answer to that question, to most filmmakers, would have been no. For all of those life-and-death, faith-and-practicality, big-picture questions it raises, the bottom line is that this is a story about a guy who goes into a remote location, gets his arm trapped underneath an immovable boulder for almost five days, and then makes an unimaginable decision – compelling stuff for a memoir, no doubt, but there’s really only one location and one main character, and in a way the story ends fairly abruptly. Most filmmakers would have moved on.
Clearly, Danny Boyle isn’t most filmmakers. He’s a restless creative spirit, and he’s something he hasn’t done yet, every time out of the gate. Alfred Hitchcock used to do that. Hitchcock made Lifeboat because of the challenge of shooting a single location (99% of Lifeboat takes place inside that boat). He made Rope to see if he could make a movie in as few shots as possible (there are reportedly no more than 10 individual shots in Rope). He made Psycho, in part, to see if he could make audiences sympathize with [SPOILER] a murderer. I’m going to suggest, without any definitive confirmation, that Danny Boyle has studied Hitchcock. Boyle’s first feature, Shallow Grave, owes much to Hitchcock’s filmography. While Boyle seems to share little to none of Hitchcock’s thematic obsessions (murder plots, icy-cold blond women, shifting identities), he shares plenty of that restless interest in genre and dedication to cinematic craft and ingenuity.
So here’s the challenge facing Danny Boyle: How do you make a movie with only one main character, who spends the vast majority of the film’s running time trapped in one location, unable to move? How do you visualize that horrific, nauseating moment? How do you make that a movie that people will keep watching, after that scene, instead of running out in disgust? Career-wise, how do you follow up Slumdog Millionaire, a well-loved movie that takes worldwide audiences from the depths of desperation to the heights of joy? And how about this crazy notion: Can you somehow do a similar thing with Aron Ralston’s story? You can’t span locations, or end in a musical number, the way Slumdog Millionaire does. You have less tools. It’s an exceedingly difficult proposition.
These are all rhetorical questions, by the way: Danny Boyle achieved all of that, and brilliantly. He had help, having recruited many of his previous collaborators: Slumdog producer Christian Colson returns, along with screenwriter Beaufoy and unlikely composer Rahman. (127 Hours has a rambunctious, energetic score that has some of the Bollywood touches for which Rahman is well-known and revered overseas, but also many versatile surprises.) The innovative Anthony Dod Mantle also returns, although the unusual, ultimately successful decision to bring in Enrique Chediak (of the Boyle-produced 28 Weeks Later) as a second cinematographer adds a fascinating energy to the finished film. (I’m not entirely sure of the story behind that choice, but it seems to have been a good one.)
Some might wonder how Boyle and company get the audience to sympathize with a boisterous, somewhat impetuous young mountain climber/ habitual risk-taker who, depending how you look at it, got himself into that situation in the first place. One thing that helps is casting: James Franco, who ladies love for his broody handsomeness and who guys love or his goofy silliness in movies like Pineapple Express, has never been better. If you’re going to be trapped with one actor for almost two hours, you could do plenty worse. Franco has to play pretty much the entire range of human emotion in this movie (no exaggeration), and he’s never less than convincing. Beaufoy and Boyle’s script helps too – there’s a brilliant line of dialogue, delivered perfectly by Franco, that floored me. The line is simple: “Thank you.” It says everything that a monologue couldn’t. I won’t ruin at which moment it arrives, but it’s a perfect alchemy of writing, acting, direction, and pacing that earns 127 Hours all of its inevitable accolades, all on its own.
There’s more, plenty more, but really, it’d be like trying to describe a great painting. I can write everything I can about how well-done it is, but eventually you’re going to have to see it for yourself or you’ll never get the full effect. 127 Hours is complete virtuosity; it’s a master filmmaker, an inventive and ingenious visual artist and storyteller, and a director uncommonly interested in human beings, using all of the instruments and tricks and tools at his disposal, and bringing them all to bear for yet another unforgettable cinematic experience.
Have I convinced you to get past the fear and to go see this movie yet? Please. You’ll be glad.