127 Hours as a film was always going to be harrowing, intense, remarkable, hard to watch and so on. Aron Ralston’s story is just too astonishing and too simple for it not to be effective. It absolutely insists on empathy and as the audience filters out of the theater, the first and only question on everyone’s lips will be, “Could you do that?” If you don’t know what “that” is then you haven’t been paying attention. Ralston’s story has been all over the news in recent weeks, and before that his bestseller Between a Rock and a Hard Place did well enough to pierce the social consciousness. However, to avoid from the start any ambiguity, this is a story about a man whose arm gets trapped under a rock, and the choice he makes to cut it off. With any Top 25 Director and any Top 10 Face behind this story, you’re almost guaranteed serious Oscar contention. It must be for this reason then that I ended up feeling underwhelmed by Danny Boyle’s latest. Of course I was moved, because the reality of this situation is moving, but despite how successful this thing was always going to be, Danny Boyle somehow was able to get in his own way. His style and his choices, so often exciting and strong, end up being frustratingly omnipresent and controlling. Somehow he ended up over-telling a story that was fully prepared to tell itself.
Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a joyful and manic outdoorsman, and the film begins with his Friday night car trip to the canyons he’ll spend the next day hiking. From the first moment the light passes through the celluloid Boyle makes his presence felt. Even shooting a simple car ride, Danny Boyle doesn’t feel comfortable without enumerable cuts, transitions and split screens. This is an impressive and occasionally interesting approach, but you can’t watch it without wondering what the point is. But more on that later. Ralston treks his way through picturesque Utah canyon country, and spends an hour or two frolicking in an underground pool with two young hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn). This is a nice enough sequence, providing a small glimpse at Ralston’s outgoing kookiness. He parts ways with the ladies, begins his descent into Blue John’s canyon and it’s here that an errant boulder captures Aron, pinning him down far from any other hikers. As the reality of his situation sets in, the film’s title finally materializes.
Perhaps it’s the utter stagnancy of Ralston’s predicament that prompted Danny Boyle’s manic method. He himself described the story as “an action movie with a guy who can’t move.” Au contraire! This is a story very much NOT in need of an “action movie” treatment. This is a story about looking over the brink and the psychology of a slow death, and Boyle’s chopped and screwed method tends to get in the way more often then it helps. One element of this approach is giving scenes a massive amount of coverage. Every shot, regardless of its relevance or significance seems to get 30 takes from as many angles. This can be a smart technique, and Boyle has certainly made it work to his advantage in the past (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) but here it feels mostly out of place and confusing. Past that, there’s an abundance of flashbacks, memories, and surrealities. As far as the film’s stylistic choices, these interludes are the strongest, allowing Ralston out of his canyon trap and keeping the viewer interested. That’s not to say that these forays are productive in every way. Taking the viewer out of the canyon takes the viewer out of the moment, and the moment is ultimately the most important element of this story.
A massive casualty of Danny Boyle’s filmmaking is the performance of James Franco. To be clear, Franco is great. He carries this film as strongly as Tom Hanks in Cast Away (and looks a little better doing it). The difference though between the two performances is that with Cast Away, Director Zemeckis understood who the feature of his film was. He understood that in order for the audience to achieve empathy they had to have the chance to see Tom Hanks simply exist with everything else stripped away. Danny Boyle takes so many insular scenes, moments where Franco is really trying to explore this character’s terrifying reality, and he chops them up. There’s simply no allowing for performance here, and I can’t think of a story better suited to performance. This is precisely the type of opportunity that any smart actor is hoping for, and Franco seems fully prepared to make the most of it. Given the nature of the film’s individual focus it seems inevitable that he’ll garner a nomination, but this seems a missed opportunity. James Franco is looking for a true breakout, and 127 Hours seems to be one only on paper.
Despite the troubles the film has regarding its approach, there’s no lack of love for Aron Ralston and his situation. Unlike The Social Network, this story is true to its roots, utilizing footage and photos and anything else available to recreate this scenario faithfully. Boyle’s purity of motivation leads to a depiction of Ralston as a sweet and mildly complex character, whose only apparent fault lies in an intense need for independence; the type of minor character shortcoming we can all attest to having in spades. And the film handles Ralston’s penultimate act well, making the audience squirm but not lingering on the grotesque. It’s important to avoid gratuity here, but at the same time, don’t we all owe it to Aron Ralston to keep our eyes open and witness just a minor glimpse of the horror he experienced? If we’re going to be truly empathic then it seems the least we can do.
In this quiet year, 127 Hours will probably be nominated for Best Picture. It simply doesn’t have a lot to contend with. But this is not the film I was hoping for. My expectation was that this film would have weight, and drama, and pace, and I instead got a Red Bull MTV remix of that film. Certainly Danny Boyle has established himself with precisely this style of filmmaking, but he’s not incapable of relaxing his manic method. Sunshine took Boyle’s intensity and pared it down without completely dispelling it. It’s not as though every moment of 127 Hours is electrified, but those quiet, nurtured moments are fewer and farther between, despite being the most emotionally vibrant. This seems to be one of those unfortunate cases of a film where goodness is achieved and greatness sits untouched on the horizon. Danny Boyle doesn’t need to add anything to his legacy; he directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later and he has a Best Picture Oscar sitting on a shelf somewhere. But film isn’t about the individual, and Boyle was given every opportunity to tell a story of human sacrifice without putting his own spin on it. It seems that Boyle may simply be too enamored with style to recognize its potential for harm.