I’m known for making a lot of sweeping generalizations in my life. I assume a lot of people think a lot of things on a regular basis. However, I believe I’m not alone in assuming that nobody wants to lose their dominant arm (spoiler alert, Dan). 127 Hours is the story of Aron Ralston (portrayed by James Franco), an outdoorsy kind of guy who, one weekend, has his right arm trapped under a boulder. By coincidence, or as Aron surmises later in the film, by some twisted fate, this is also the one weekend where he has told no one where he is going. His parents don’t know, his sister doesn’t know, his co-workers don’t know and the two cool girls he met who invited him to a party on the trail? They don’t know either. And now he will be stuck under this boulder for the titular length of time with almost no food or water. Spoiler alert, it’s based on the book the real Aron Ralston wrote about the experience. Sorry, Dan.
127 Hours is a hard movie. It starts out with itself and the audience both aware that it tells the story of a guy who is pinned to a canyon wall by a boulder and has to cut his own arm off to live. So, how does it get there and what does it do on the way that I like? Let’s start with all the stuff I like. For one, no one could convince me as Ralston quite like James Franco. Franco is a gifted actor, and I’ve grown up seeing him on the big screen in Spider-Man to Pineapple Express to Milk and the great variety and depth he brings to his performances are often highlights in and of themselves. This is a talented comedian who can carry a dramatic film on his shoulders. This is the kind of actor we see in veterans like Tom Hanks, which is why it’s slightly disappointing to see him listed as Bar Guy #1 in The Wicker Man. Maybe this movie will get him some better roles, hm?
This movie is hard. Rock hard. And that’s not a joke. It is an unrelenting and unforgiving look at what hardships a man can push himself through in getting to survive. It’s made me think a lot about how I would react in that situation. The real Aron Ralston is the outdoorsy fitness type who loves to listen to Phish. I’d see Phish live any day–they put on a hell of a show–but I don’t know any of the words. Real Aron does, and James Franco is humming their songs throughout the first reel. I consider “listens to Phish albums” to be an accurate summation of a person’s character. I am glad to say that in the case of Aron “Balls of Steel” Ralston, I would be wrong. I know that I wouldn’t have the courage to do what he did, and that not every actor in the world would have the ability to portray it. James Franco brings Ralston’s humour and solipsist epiphanies to life onscreen, and is a joy to behold.
Danny Boyle has made me wary of his movies in recent years. That’s not quite true. The first film I saw of his was the apocalyptic masterwork 28 Days Later… which, at the time, everyone confused with Sandra-Bullock-in-rehab movie, 28 Days. Back when people asked me if I meant that movie, I knew that 28 Days Later… was better. And it is. It’s one of the best films released in the last ten years, of any genre, of any budget. It is an equally hard and merciless look at human beings in desperate circumstances. Yet, being a movie about zombies, it didn’t get recognized for what it was. After that, Danny Boyle started making movies for critical recognition, and indeed–Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture. Except, I saw that movie, and it was certainly worse than WALL-E (not nominated).
Except, if there’s one thing Danny Boyle knows well, it’s human beings in desperate circumstances. His direction brings such a claustrophobic immediacy to the events of the film that you really do feel the story can go anywhere. You may know the ending walking in, but with Boyle behind the camera, it feels brand new all the same. You can’t tell what’s going to happen because Boyle keeps it new and Franco doesn’t see it coming. I didn’t believe Boyle’s version of a love story–it was too clichéd and too old-fashioned. But I believe his version of this story. Indeed, the real Aron Ralston said it’s as close as you can get to being a documentary while still being a drama. I felt a voice-over narration coming on at times, likely provided by the real Ralston, American Splendor style. It didn’t happen, but thanks to Boyle, I felt it anyway.
Still, this movie aggravates some old pet peeves of mine. For instance: Danny Boyle has an eye that I envy. His shot composition and his visual sense are off any charts I can read. However, since 28 Days Later…, he has shot all of his films on digital. In some places, digital makes sense. Gritty post-apocalyptic dramas, yes. Love stories, no. Here, it’s really a grey area: Ralston records his thoughts on a camcorder, digital cameras are important throughout the film. Yet, the grain and motion-blur don’t lend to the claustrophobic close-ups throughout the feature.
The only other fault I found was with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack, but even then, it wasn’t much. The recurring theme when things get stressful or heavy felt so much like a deliberate retread of 28 Days Later…, with its pounding drums, layers of guitars and mounting tension. It’s good and all, and damned effective, but if you have an ear for this sort of thing, expect to be distracted. I also realize that for Rahman, autotune is simply another colour in his sonic palette, but to a North American audience, it’s T-Pain and Cher. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll likely keep an ear out for it. Sorry for ruining that scene when you hear it.
127 Hours is diamond hard. It’s harder than I am. It might be the hardest and most honest movie in the race for Best Picture. For James Franco, it gives him a career-best performance. For Danny Boyle, I feel like I can say: welcome back. FOUR STARS