Monday, November 29, 2010

127 Hours (***1/2)

Directed by Danny Boyle


In telling the story of Aron Ralston, there are few film directors I would have preferred more than Danny Boyle. When you know that the majority of a movie is going to be a guy stuck in the same spot for an hour and a half, you'd like the guy making the movie to bring a lot of energy. And that's what Boyle has brought to any film he's ever made: a great abundance of energy. In his first film since the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle moves toward a more singular story - even if the visual style isn't much different - in telling the harrowing and infamous tale of Ralston's journey at the bottom of a canyon.

Played with stunning physicality and captivating charm by James Franco, Ralston is displayed as a rambunctious thrill-seeker, taking very little time to think before his next great (or dangerous) adventure. When we first see him, he is waking up in the middle of the night, preparing for his morning hike through the Blue John Canyon in the Utah desert. He rides his bike haphazardly over small hills and valleys, looking for nothing in particular. Hiking is not about the destintion for Ralston, it's about the adventure itself. So, who cares if your front bike tire ramps off a small bush of dry grass which catapults you twenty feet through the air, landing on your back. For Ralston, that's all part of the fun. And he always makes sure to take pictures.

So hungry for excitement, Aron approaches two young women (played by Kate Mara & Amber Tamblyn) who are lost near the canyon. He volunteers to help them and tells them that he's a guide (in reality, he's just an engineer), leading them to a spring at one part of the canyon that you have to slide down a crevice to get to. It's something of a make-shift water slide, and this act endears him to the two girls. But as soon as his guide duties are finished, he does not follow them elsewhere. They invite him to a house party where they promise free alcohol and a giant inflatable Scooby Doo. He accepts the invite... tentatively. Then he's off.

Trekking deeper into the canyon, the space gets smaller and smaller. The walls start to close in on each other and the sun begins to hide. As Aron tries to climb over a boulder, it slips out and he falls. The boulder has trapped his arm underneath it and he cannot get it out. He screams the names of the girls he'd been with moments earlier, but he's so deep down that no one can hear him. At this point, I'm sure most of us know the story. Aron Ralston has run the media gambit telling his queasy story of survival, but part of the greatness of 127 Hours is how it tells us just about every thing we didn't know - and that's all in Aron's mind. How do you survive 127 hours with only a burrito and five hundred milliliters of water? We already knew how Ralston survived physically, but Boyle's latest film shows us how he did it mentally.

A picture of the actual Aron Ralston with his arm trapped under the boulder. Proof of the film's impeccable attention to detail. Franco and Boyle used the actual, seldom seen recorded footage of Ralston stuck in the canyon to make the film further more true to the actual story.

Everybody knows one thing about Aron Ralston: he amputated his own arm so he wouldn't die in a Utah canyon. We can imagine the kind of spirit and will that a person must contain in order to perform an act like his - we can also imagine the desperation. If there's one thing that I appreciated about 127 Hours, was that it did not default toward histrionic melodrama to visualize that desperation, as it would have been so easy to do. We are not shown a man with an unbridled will to survive - we see a charming, adventurous young man who's put in a very foreboding situation, who has to make difficult decisions about whether or not he even can survive. Ralston's story has become the stuff of folk tale, but this film does its best to present him as a very engaging human being not a back-against-the-wall hero. This makes his actions - even though we already know what they are - seem even more heroic.

You can credit the screenplay (written by Boyle and his Slumdog co-scribe Simon Beaufoy), which does an excellent job of forming an empathetic character without having the flexibility of being able to set up a strong backstory. But I feel all of the power emotes from its director and main star. Danny Boyle takes a chance by giving the film a very steady, borderline upbeat tone, utilizing his usual breakneck editing style and inspired soundtrack choices (a montage scored by Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" is particularly exceptional). And James Franco also rolls the dice with his stunning performance here. It would have been so easy to play Ralston with a brave desperation that lionizes him (you want to try and convince me that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn't have played it that way?), but instead makes him a bit reckless, slightly nonchalant, almost unaware of the severity of the situation. It's hard to do a scene where the main character has to drink a bag of his own sterile, days-old urine without making it seem histrionic, but Boyle and Franco downplay it almost gracefully. I fully expect Boyle and Franco to receive Oscar nominations for their work (if they don't, it would be criminal).

The film was a bit of a Slumdog Millionaire reunion of sorts, since both films have the same production designer (Suttriat Larlarb), cinematographer (Anthony Dod Mantle), and film scorer (A.R. Rahman) - in addition to Boyle and Beaufoy. This shows in much of the visual aesthetic, t
where the two films are very similar throughout. Both films have a very strong forward movement that are manifested in camera effects, quick shots, and an astonishing use of color. But 127 Hours hit me a whole lot harder between the ears than the 2008 Best Picture winner did. Perhaps the character of Ralston just stuck with me more than Slumdog's Jamal did. One thing that can't be disputed, James Franco is a much more seasoned acting talent then most of the no-names in Slumdog, but this film goes beyond just the performance from it's lead actor. All the glitz and style was used to serve the story and the character, which I don't think was always the case with Slumdog.

I really feel like 127 Hours will get better with repeated viewings. The film's final moments felt long to me and there were some storytelling decisions in the last act that I may have questioned. Perhaps that has more to do with my own heavy anticipation of the ending, than it does with the ending itself. Despite all that, we still have this: the work that Boyle and Franco combine to do here makes one of the best movies of the year. It's a story of survival, sure, but a psychological survival more than anything. As a member of the audience, you expect a big physical release by the time his arm has become detached. But you don't get that. What you get is something you never saw coming.

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