127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
It is difficult to pinpoint what sort of director Danny Boyle is. The characters of his movies frequently get into loads of trouble and are therefore forced to find unusual ways to return to safety (by re-igniting the sun, by becoming a contestant in a game show), but that isn’t necessarily a running theme. Claiming Boyle to be a ‘director for hire’ is just as inaccurate. His films may feel very different from one another, but the director always succeeds in giving the audience a little bit more than what they expected. That is the sign of a unique talent. One does not know what exactly to expect from the director, but by the film’s end, one is neither surprised to learn that it was ‘directed by Danny Boyle.’ Boyle may have accomplished his greatest coup to date.
Aaron Ralston (James Franco) is a loner, who goes on weekend adventures in extreme places. It is his way of living freedom and continuously injecting a sense of adventure into his life. Not much information is provided to the audience about Aaron, but it is revealed early in the movie that he does not answer calls and possibly does not return them often as well. He lives in a world where excitement needs to be at every turn, and he will make that turn because he can seemingly do it all without any fear. On this particular occasion, he ventures off on a Friday night to Robbers Roost in Utah, a dry, rocky mountainous region that he revisit (he already knows the place fairly well since he is a regular customer) by bike and by foot. Following an encounter with two pretty women his age during which he helps them find their way through the perplexing Blue John canyon inroads, he sets off on foot through the smaller, tighter passages of the mountain. Upon misjudging the sturdiness of a boulder, he falls into a narrow opening in the mountain. After landing, he realizes that, seemingly against all odds, his hand is perfectly snuggled between the canyon wall and the boulder that fell with him. Low on food and water, Aaron’s mental toughness and bravery are put to their greatest test yet.
Describing 127 Hours as a roller coaster ride of a movie sounds strange because for the majority of the film’s running time, the principal character forcibly stays in one place. What the film lacks in traditional action-inspired narrative (characters moving place spot A to spot Z), it makes up for in exploring Aaron’s thought process and memories of lovely things gone past that he might never see again should he fail to find his way out of this predicament. The energy of the story’s is twofold. Firstly, as time ticks away, the viewer learns more and more about the protagonist as he thinks back at the many people he has known, the few he has loved, and how long it might take for anyone to realize that he is missing. Secondly, the editing process infuses a ridiculous amount of viscera and emotional impact into the picture. A third but no less important fact is the acting on display from star James Franco.
The character of Aaron, at the beginning of the picture, comes across as something resembling loose cannon. He needs adrenaline to keep going and nothing can stop him in his quest to hunt for more. Much like comic heroes, he has a lot of energy to spend and frequently has a huge grin plastered on his face as he goes up, down and all around. It is small wonder that he refers to himself, in one of the movie’s odder scenes, to an American superhero. His social skills are alright, but he fails to truly connect with people because he is often thinking about the next adventure. It is not until the dire reality of is situation makes itself clear that Aaron begins to realize the opportunities at connectivity with others has had has missed in recent years. There are people who love him, but he has failed to return the feeling. Regret sets in as the hope of escaping Blue John is slipping away by the hour. 127 Hours reminds us that the greatest things in life, our friends and family, are the ones closest to us, even though at the time we often believe it to be extremely taxing to engage them. Relationships go astray, feelings are hurt, and rather than make the effort to mend the problem, people have the nasty habit of fleeing it. The most memorable moment of the film is, in fact, not even when Aaron looks back at something, but rather when he experiences a premonition. Just as his strength it is its lowest level and when total defeat is hovering above this desperate man, his vision is overtaken by an imagined scene of him with a little boy riding on his shoulders. The boy, we can rightfully guess, is his son. This is the most lasting image from Aaron’s imagination and the one which finally pushes him to commit the most physically painful and twisted act he ever will: to cut off the lower part of his arm which is trapped by the boulder.No pain, no gain, and this is a man who needs to gain his freedom.
The editing, practiced by the filmmakers, both for the picture and the sound compliments the themes of love and isolation studied in the 127 Hours. Upon reading the synopsis many months ago, I was intrigued by the nature of the story, but wondered how Danny Boyle would approach a project that seemed a better fit for a director known for using slower pacing for his or her films. In the end, that mattered little, because it is the pacing, and the cuts which produce said pacing, that reserved the biggest surprise. It is fast and frantic, with split screens at the beginning of the film hinting at Aaron’s reclusive status, quick flashbacks to significant moments previously lived, and a lot of other tricks used in movies starring Sylvester Stallone instead of a character piece drama. The truth of the matter is that the strategy pays off, with the lively editing playing a supporting role in conveying the mounting stress pressing heavily on Aaron Rolsten and the mixed emotions which with he reminisces his past. For that matter, the editing succeeds perfectly fusing together two necessary aspects of this kind movie. Keep the audience on its feet with a kinetic pacing and make Aaron’s gut wrenching misadventure an multi-sensory experience.
James Franco portrays the man to whom all of this really happened, in a performance that confirms he is one of the finer American actors working today. Why he is not given the lead role more often in big Hollywood films is still a mystery. In 127 Hours, the actor has everything down pat. The joy of living another expedition, the cockiness while guiding two beautiful women through the canyons because he knows them and they do not, the shock at realizing he might be in big trouble once he falls deeper into the mountain, the mild lunacy which gains him as fatigue and stress both mount. Franco hits every note marvellously in the film, with some of his best work coming in the movie’s oddest sequence in which he begins to imagine he his host, guest and call-in listener of a morning talk show discussing his stupidity at always thinking he can do everything without the support of others (he is essentially playing three versions of the character simultaneously, which is rather interesting).
127 Hours is a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully understood. I can write all day long about how Danny Boyle the his gang work little wonders with the sound and cinematography in bringing out the deeper emotional and psychological layers that make up the person that was Aaron Rolsten, but seeing it play out is where it matters most. It is worthy for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is building and preserving a scene of tension despite the fact that all of this is based on a true story, so the viewer knows how it will end. For all I know, that may very well be the movie's greatest appeal.