127 Hours (Danny Boyle 2010) – Oscars in review
My belated week-long catch-up of the 83rd Academy Awards kicks off with James Franco stuck to a rock – ‘armless enough entertainment if you’re into that kind of thing.
(Danny Boyle, GB/US, 2010)
Cinema’s most fidgety director tries to pin himself down… but can’t resist using every trick at his disposal to break free
Danny Boyle thrives on movement. He’s always been the thrill seeker of British cinema, seeking out new genres in which to take a spin, unconstrained by the traditional career choices of social realism, foppish comedy or Lahndan gangsters. The director’s name has always felt apt: his prototypical movie heats up the screen with pulsing techno, a restless camera and rapid-fire editing. Edinburgh drug addicts, post-apocalyptic survivors, Bombay street kids… all running to escape the bad in search of the better.
So it’s kind of fitting that, crowned by Oscar for the broad canvas of Slumdog Millionaire, he’d find the most minimalist material imaginable to challenge himself with. And what could be more challenging than to reign in his temperament with the story of one man trapped in a canyon with no hope of rescue? It’s the ironic flipside to Trainspotting or Slumdog, because there’s no reason – beyond extreme sports narcissism – for him to be there at all. Which makes Aron Ralston is almost a self-parody of a Boyle hero, racing off into the unknown with his MP3 player turned to maximum… only to find himself stuck, as Ralston’s memoir puts it, between a rock and a hard place, facing some agonising choices about how to get out.
That fiendish situation is a test case for auteurism. Robert Bresson would have turned Ralston’s ordeal into an austere, patient, methodical summoning of spiritual courage. Hitchcock might have fixed on Ralston’s penknife and wrung suspense from the inevitable outcome. A post-Saw gorehound would have relished the bone-crunching, nerve-shredding finale. Boyle, though, can’t keep still, and is instantly looking for a way out.
The first thing to note is that, unusually for a claustrocore movie, this isn’t a confined space. The supreme irony of Ralston’s situation is that he’s found the single rock for hundreds of miles where it’s possible to be pinned down, and Boyle’s first instinct is to rise up and out of the canyon – a supremely sadistic example of the modern trend towards Google Earth imagery. And then come the camera angles, dozens of them, as DoPs Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak getting into tighter spaces even than Ralston to survey the landscape. The focus is so sharp that dust occasionally pixellates the images, the lenses so extreme that James Franco’s face is distorted into compellingly weird shapes. As an exercise in exploiting and exploring cinematic space, it is a startling study, if arguably one that obscures the superb performance of the actor at its centre.
“Danny Boyle doesn’t quite trust Franco, and his editing hints at boredom. 127 hours have never flown by so fast…”
The real joy here is that Franco is himself as spontaneous as his character and director. He plays Ralston as a doer, suddenly forced to become a thinker. Frustration overrides panic, a rueful self-awareness keeps mawkishness at bay… and in one set-piece, slightly indulgent but a tour-de-force, he interrogates himself with feverish, farcical black comedy. No blubbing needed here; the actor earns our respect for the sheer determination and coiled physical presence, a human Rubik’s cube twisting himself by trial and error into completion only to realise that he’s going to have to cheat by breaking open the cube itself.
Trouble is, Boyle doesn’t quite trust Franco, and his editing hints at boredom. 127 hours have never flown by so fast, as split-screen urges events on, flashbacks and fantasies (most incongruously, of a sinister inflatable Scooby Doo) paper over the ellipses and A.R. Rahman’s score swoops operatically over proceedings. These are sensible, understandable dramatic ploys, but which serve to weaken both the mind-numbing claustrophobia of the situation, and the euphoria when release comes.
It’s the simplest touches that work the best: the beatific arrival on sunlight on Ralston’s feet, or the thunderous echo of breaking bones as he bravely prepares for self-surgery. The climactic cutting itself is surprisingly tame, the anguish played out on Franco’s bloodshot, scrunched-up face, but the real killer comes minutes after, when Ralston – free but far from safe – drinks ecstatically from a pool of dirty water. (Like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire beforehand, it wouldn’t be a Boyle movie without somebody diving into the shit in search of an Epiphany.) At least when it comes here, it’s soundtracked to Sigur Ros, a spine-tingling release that finally sees the film soar away in Boyle’s trademark release.