Friday, December 10, 2010

127 Hours

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Poesy, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams, Kate Burton
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a moment in 127 Hours when adventurer Aron Ralston tells himself to keep it together as he passes the 24-hour mark in an isolated canyon with his arm pinned under a boulder, and it revealingly might be the only piece of advice anyone needs to remember in a life or death situation like that. Through sheer will and determination he'll hang on for 5 days until doing the unthinkable to finally free himself. "Could I do it?" is the question most likely to be on everyone's mind when the credits roll and the most compelling aspect of the film is how it makes you look inside for the answer. In trying to solve the riddle of sustaining maximum interest in a single location survival story where we already know the ending, director Danny Boyle uses a whole bag of tricks to tell it, but what surprised me most was just how little that bothered me. It fits the story's tone well and when the sounds and images are this technically impressive and memorable (many unshakable long after the film's conclusion) he's entitled to a little showing off. But who most entitles him to it is James Franco, easily one of the most likable and talented actors working today, showing everyone what he's got by responding with the performance of his life.

Based on the Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the film depicts 27 year-old Aaron's (Franco) April 2003 hike in Utah's Blue Rock Canyon where after helping out lost hikers Megan (Amber Tamblin) and Kristi (Kate Mara), he falls through a crevice, a heavy boulder tumbling on top of him and trapping his arm. With little water and even less food he's forced to come up with ways to not only prolong his life, but keep his sanity as he starts to physically and mentally deteriorate. With a small camcorder among his few belongings, Aaron records his thoughts and feelings on the situation, which turns into a kind of a video will for his family. After exhausting all reasonable options to escape he's finally forced to use the cheap, dull knife he got as a present from mom in a way he couldn't have anticipated.

Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle pulls out all the stops using split screen, voice-overs, flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, montages and odd musical selections. The best thing about these hallucinatory sequences (aside from their obvious visual intensity) is their lack of context, with one so mysterious and mesmerizing it may have actually been better off without the full-on explanation it gets at the end. And without knowing you'd probably be able to guess this was made by the director of Slumdog Millionaire since the colorful, eye-popping prologue sequence, the score and the visual and storytelling style throughout are almost identical to that film. That's of little surprise when you consider Boyle's team of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who deserves to be nominated again here) and composer A.R. Rahman reunited for this. It's overly reductive to say he remakes that movie in a canyon considering the differing subject matter, but a direct comparison (which actually favors this film) is called for and anyone who sees it would agree. I do think this will play better for those who haven't seen Slumdog, or did, but haven't a clue that the same person made it. In Boyle's defense, when you have to tell a exciting 90 minute story of someone stuck under a boulder, you almost have to make some wild stylistic choices and few very filmmakers would have made them work as interestingly as he.

Since the book covered Ralston's entire life rather than only those 127 hours, that portion still had to somehow be conveyed on screen, even if I can't help but wonder what we would have gotten if his original wish to have this optioned as a docudrama came to pass, sparing us the bells and whistles Boyle provides. Would the story be more or less moving? Would it be any different from a National Geographic or Discovery Channel reenactment?  The only thing we know for sure either way is the pure power of Franco's performance, creating Aaron from the inside-out, his words and actions shedding light on how the character finally arrives at the mental place necessary to make the brave decision that saves him, as well as the series of mistakes that led him there. When Aaron says he feels as if that boulder was waiting for him his entire life we completely believe it and understand what he means because of Franco. Aaron starts the film as as a cocky, free-spirited adventurer and ends it as a different person entirely but Franco has no problems getting us to root for him right away (he's also very funny, especially in the video diary scenes). This movie is his show and aside from him, not many others get screen time, though it's worth noting that Tamblyn and Mara aren't easily forgotten after they've left. As for the infamous self amputation scene, it's definitely graphic but not gratuitous and feels more like an emotional release or the culmination of a journey than anything overtly gross or disgusting. Anyone who thinks they can't watch it (some audiences have reportedly passed out) can remind themselves Ralston brought himself to somehow DO IT without passing out, which kind of puts things in perspective.

It's tough bringing a true-life survival story like this to the screen but even tougher when it's ending is uplifting and inspiring and Boyle does lay it on pretty thick in the final minutes. Comparisons to the more tragic Into The Wild come to mind as the film races by, even if that really wasn't a survival story, but something more. And in a way this is more too as the careless protagonist also has to discover he really can't go at everything alone. My only minor quibble is that when so much is happening technically you runs the risk of remembering all the things the movie does before the story. A couple of years and a few more viewings should determine whether I'm wrong. 127 Hours is almost exactly as great as I expected it to be. No better, no worse. But the most impressive thing about it is how much is constantly going on in a story where you wouldn't expect anything can.

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