by Michael Koresky
Dir. Danny Boyle, U.S./U.K., Fox Searchlight
In the opening minutes of 127 Hours, Danny Boyleâ€™s adaptation of the based-on-a-true-story book by Aron Ralston, also known as the guy who cut his own arm off in order to free himself from a boulder, it seems the apparently ADD-afflicted filmmaker has found the perfect set-up for his hectic aesthetic. Set to the hyper-rhythms of Free Bloodâ€™s â€śNever Hear Surf Music Againâ€ť (opening lyrics: â€śTake it if it makes you numb, take it if it makes you cumâ€¦â€ť), images of a speed-demon society race along in multi-screen flipbook fashion: athletes pushing to be more than they can be, long shots of cars racing across highways in fast motion. Boyleâ€™s thesis is clear, if simplisticâ€”weâ€™re addicted to our own millennial pace, a global epidemic of adrenaline seeking. But treating Ralstonâ€™s story as kin to that of Trainspotting, which memorably realized addiction as a kinetic, first-person freefall, seems disingenuous and forced, a retroactive bit of auteurist form-fitting. Boyleâ€™s visual choices, as always, are all over the map: bicyclists and freeways, okay, but close-ups of dripping water faucets from a variety of angles, split across multiple screens? Confused audience members can be forgiven for thinking the pre-show commercials are still runningâ€”is this movie or Mountain Dew commercial?
Boyle throws a lot at us in a flurry (approaching the desperation of Baz Luhrmann), and so little of the images we see could stand alone as meaningful. At the moment all this motion comes crashing to a haltâ€”just in time for the filmâ€™s protagonist to find himself, as the title of his own book puts it, â€śbetween a rock and a hard place,â€ť and for the filmâ€™s own title to appear on screen with a whammo flourishâ€”Boyleâ€™s already fitfully exhausted us. By this point weâ€™ve met daredevil outdoorsman and mountaineer Aron Ralston, embodied by James Franco with that signature lackadaisical California carriage, as he races with abandon through the gloriously sun-dappled terrain of Utahâ€™s Canyonlands National Park, popping wheelies on his mountain bike, tumbling cheerily into the ground, and flirting with a pair of cute hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he takes on a thrill-seeking cave tour. Once Aron, decked out in pink sunflower shirt and world-blocking headphones, is alone again in the desert, Boyle happens upon an image that points towards the filmâ€™s potential: a close-up of Francoâ€™s hand, rubbing sensually along a canyon wall. Itâ€™s a lovely expression not only of basic human physicality often taken for granted (and soon to be taken from Aron), but also of this young manâ€™s pursuit of a connection with nature; only here does he seem happy, as Francoâ€™s blissed-out expression reads.
Once Aron trips terrifyingly down a crevice in the rock and ends up with one arm trapped behind a boulder that his feet had accidentally dislodged, one would imagine Boyleâ€™s filmmaking would calm down. Yet so worried does he seem that the audience might grow restless during a ninety-minute re-enactment of a man stuck in one place that he continues to unleash his arsenal of effects and techniques (captured by two cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak): slow-motion, varied stocks, even POV shots from inside his . . . canteen. Itâ€™s surely the opposite of Rodrigo CortĂ©sâ€™s stellar, strict audience punisher Buried, which trusted its viewersâ€™ concentration enough that it never once strays from its claustrophobic single setting, filmed from a variety of creative yet claustrophobic angles: a coffin in which Ryan Reynolds awakes to find himself trapped. Boyle has no such faith, treating us like internet-and-Jolt-colaâ€“addled twits, keeping us on our toes with as many cuts, musical cues, frame-rate changes, and tonal shifts as possible, not realizing that that one pulpy smear of blood on the cavern wall where Aronâ€™s hand has been pulverized into gristle is a strong enough image to fuel a dozen imaginative feature films.
Of course, thereâ€™s a not-so-secret weapon that keeps 127 Hours grounded despite Boyleâ€™s attempts to send it floating off into the ether. James Franco, with his finely honed dude-ish disconnection, here perfects a charismatic yet frighteningly callous affability. Thereâ€™s something slightly disturbing in Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoyâ€™s decision to turn Aronâ€™s experiences into a judgmental, nearly Capra-esque arc in which a young man discovers the beauty of connection and the error of his selfish waysâ€”by the time he frees himself of his pinioned arm, it is suggested that he has been liberated of his demonic self-involvement (the film makes it depressingly clear that Aron thoughtlessly told no one where he would be hiking that weekend, neither coworkers nor parents). Yet Franco sells the character transformation effortlessly, whether heâ€™s sending last goodbyes to his family via camcorder or, in one of the filmâ€™s most dubious, audience-pandering gambits, performing a Gollum-esque talk-show repartee with himself in which he penitently interrogates his own shortsightedness, complete with imagined laugh track. If Boyle allows Franco to remain a bit too camera-courting (that camcorder, though Ralston reportedly indeed had one in tow, is quite a handy dramatic device), the actor balances his natural sexiness with palpable forlornness, moving from shock and bemusement to anger and acceptance with precious little showboating. Francoâ€™s stoicism makes Boyleâ€™s easy tricks (Bill Withersâ€™s â€śLovely Dayâ€ť grooves on the soundtrack on the third morning of Aronâ€™s captivityâ€”not quite Lou Reedâ€™s â€śPerfect Dayâ€ť in Trainspotting, but close) seem all the more egregious; like the amazing story at the filmâ€™s center, Franco doesnâ€™t need much in the way of adornment.
Yet the dreams and memories keep unspooling, culminating in hallucinations reminiscent of those that hampered the third act of Steve McQueenâ€™s Hunger (visions of children, in this case prophesies of Aronâ€™s future son, staring back with doe eyes). Perhaps such ghostly delusions are appropriate for what is essentially a horror film (interior close-ups of Aronâ€™s pen-knife penetrating bone recall that x-ray of knife piercing exposed heart in Suspiria), but 127 Hours, for all its skill and occasional effectiveness, might have better trusted its protagonist to stand on his own, without bells and whistlesâ€”heâ€™s fascinating simply by circumstance. Rather than offer a pared-down portrayal of survival, Boyle wedges one manâ€™s experiences into a moral lesson about the importance of togetherness. Thus, Ralston doesnâ€™t have to simply surviveâ€”he has to learn. By the time the seriously goofy coda comes along, in which a triumphant, one-armed Franco rises from a pool to pay grinning respect to the real-life Ralston, wife and child perched aside him in arch tableau, Ralston has become less a resourceful everyman than a dramatic conceit.