Once again, Danny Boyle proves that he doesn’t make the same movie twice. Having tackled heroin with “Trainspotting,” youth alienation with “The Beach,” zombies (or viruses if you will) with “28 Days Later,” and Bollywood with his Oscar winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” Danny now moves on to another genre that has until now eluded him: the docudrama. “127 Hour” sees Danny bringing his brand of visual magic to the heroic and horrifically true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, and he amazingly turns it into a life affirming story that demonstrates just how powerful the will to live is.
You probably know the whole story about Aron by now; he was hiking through Robbers Roost in Utah back in 2003 when a boulder became dislodged from what looked like a secure position, and he ends up falling into a crevice where the boulder pins his arm down and traps him. At that point, the movie’s title comes up on the screen, indicating the start of his ordeal of being trapped without any help nearby. In a deeply unsettling shot, we see just how alone he is as the camera pulls back from him screaming for help to a view from the sky, showing that he doesn’t even register as a speck on the rocky terrain. Aron was stuck in that cavern for five days before he resorted to the unthinkable of cutting off his arm with a dull (and we’re talking REALLY dull) knife that came as a gift with the flashlight he bought, and he hiked eight miles to where he was found by others and brought to safety.
Now with all that in mind, this doesn’t sound like a filmable story, especially when you know the outcome. What could possibly be so interesting about a man who is stuck in one place for close to a week? Well, in the hands of Danny Boyle, who has never been one to back down from a challenge, he makes a most intense and visceral journey out of this man’s dire situation that takes turns you don’t see coming. Throughout its 94 minute running time, Danny locks us right into Aron’s plight as we watch his supplies dwindle, being overcome by an inevitable sense of hopelessness, having hallucinations dealing with the people in and out of his life, and the sheer terror of realizing that no one knows where he is. Most people let others know where they are headed, but Aron didn’t even bother to leave a note for anyone, not even his mother. Taking this unfortunate fact into account, Aron only has one word to describe it:
At the center of “127 Hours” is James Franco who stars as Aron Ralston. In a career that was marked early on by some instantly forgettable movies like “Annapolis,” we became increasingly aware of his strong talent as an actor in the “Spiderman” trilogy (he was the only truly great thing about the third) and “Pineapple Express,” the latter which set him loose to go for crazy comic heights. With “127 Hours,” Franco gives his best performance to date, not to mention one of the greatest of 2010. Aside from the beginning where he runs into a couple of cute female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), this is pretty much a solo show for him in the same way much of “Castaway” was for Tom Hanks. But whereas Tom Hanks was stuck on an island with nowhere to go, Franco is simply stuck and ain’t going anywhere.
What I really loved about Franco’s performance is how natural he comes across onscreen. Not once do you capture him striving for those Oscar happy moments where the emotion of the scene is played more than the action of it. James could have been all blubbering with tears about how unfair this was while snot drips out of his nose like Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” (no offense to Russell intended for he was great). James nails the confident bravo of Aron Ralston and of his love for hiking. When he crashes on his bike, he still comes out of it laughing as if it were no big deal. Then he nails every wave of emotion as he is stuck in a crevice as he tries to free himself, and even though we know what will happen, we are as desperate as him to escape this incident with every body part intact.
While Tom Hanks had a volley ball to talk to, James instead has a video camera. Throughout his increasingly precarious situation, we watch as he documents everything; the efforts he makes to free himself, and of how much water and food he has left. James sells every moment and makes the audience feel every single emotion Aron went through. Seeing him take that last sip of water is a despairing image, and watching him grab that fleeting moment of sunlight is very distressing for it reminds of how certain things can be short lived and fully appreciated until it’s too late. Nothing is shied away from in “127 Hours,” and Franco’s performance is all the more extraordinary for it. You share his desperation to survive even up to the point where he is forced to drink his own urine. He’s in no position to filter it like Kevin Costner did in “Waterworld,” but as gross as it seems, you are thankful that he has something, anything to drink. Heck, what would you do if you were Aron Ralston?
With “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle accomplishes what Ron Howard did with both “Apollo 13”; he makes riveting entertainment out of a story we all know the outcome to. Along with the brilliant cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle (criminally robbed of an Oscar last year for his work on “Antichrist”) and Enrique Chediak, they capture every little detail beautifully and make each moment seem like the difference between life and death. If one supply gets out of his reach like a knife or his bottle of water, game over. Seeing him desperately reaching for objects that are seemingly out of his grasp threatens to be seriously grueling. Boyle and company keep the audience on the edge of their seats, never ever giving them enough time to breathe.
Also along for the ride with Danny Boyle on is A.R. Rahman, his Oscar winning composer from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Rahman provides a propulsive score that makes us feel the same excitement that Aron felt when he headed out to Robbers Roost. The music plays a very intricate part in illustrating the fun loving nature of Aron, and of how it plays into his desperation to live through the worst of times. In short, I am buying this soundtrack as soon as it comes out!
Then that moment comes of Aron finally freeing himself in the worst way possible. From what I have read, the amputation scene presented was medically accurate, and it was all shot in one take. It is an understandably excruciating scene to sit through, and it represents some of the most supremely intense and visceral filmmaking I have seen in a movie since Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For A Dream.” Seriously, I found myself digging my nails into my hand as he kept sawing away. I’m actually astonished that I didn’t break the skin! But when it was finished, him being freed felt like a huge relief and also surprisingly liberating. The audience applauded when the moment had ended, and I was clapping right along with them. Leave it to Danny Boyle to create a happy ending out of a seriously graphic situation!
Now look, you may think I have given away this entire whole movie from the review I have written. Trust me, I have not. “127 Hours” is an experience more than anything else, and it is simultaneously very intense and strangely uplifting. Having seen it, all those crazy news stories about people passing out while watching it seem very believable. It shows that Danny Boyle is still at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker, and that James Franco’s talent as an actor can no longer de denied. It’s amazing filmmaking, and I actually found myself smiling at the end of it all, feeling the elation of Aron’s hard fought freedom and how he escaped against all odds. The movie’s tagline of how there is no force more powerful than the will to live could not be more accurate.
Actually, that does seem to be the common theme in Danny Boyle’s movies; the will to live and to do something better with your life. Be it Ewan McGregor getting clean in “Trainspotting” or Cillian Murphy defeating zombies (or the Rage virus) in “28 Days Later,” the characters in his movies start off in the most dire of circumstances and somehow manage to pull themselves upright to face another day.
This is one of the best films of 2010. Now if you will excuse me, I need to cut my nails…
**** out of ****