Audiences are bound to be divided over Danny Boyle’s flashy visuals, but James Franco goes all out on a limb to ground the supersonic 127 Hours with a bit of gravitas.
Rock Me More And More by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Nobody’s ever accused Danny Boyle of being minimalist. And after the rococo flourishes of Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours could have been an interesting exercise in less-is-more for the Hollywood director, if only he’d paid his dues to Aron Ralston’s trapped-in-a-canyon original story and played by the rules of the one-man show. But all rules and no play makes Danny a dull boy. And unlike his compatriot, genre-busting Michael Winterbottom, he’s not one for playful exercises in formalism. Instead, 127 Hours is a veritable cornucopia of flashbacks, premonitions, hallucinations and visual flourishes, a clutch of cheeping chicks that only serves to peck away at Franco’s Prometheus Bound performance.
How much do you trust Danny Boyle? Inevitably that’s the question racing through your mind as 127 Hours swings wincingly into action. Memories of Trainspotting‘s graphic heroin shoot-ups, Shallow Grave‘s grisly bone-sawing or 28 Days Later‘s fast-frame zombies are hardly comforting. And after Slumdog Millionaire‘s riotous exuberance, it’s hard to be sure how far Danny Boyle is willing to push the envelope this time. But rest assured, as we hurtle though vein-poking and bone-grinding loop-the-loops, Danny Boyle’s timing is perfect, cutting away from agonising self-mutilation just as we squeamishly close our eyes.
Despite Boyle’s penchant for visual effects, 127 Hours couldn’t be less like his previous feelgood blockbuster, uneasily counting down to Aron Ralston’s increasingly excruciating fate. And with James Franco mastering the role, Aron’s harrowing ordeal as he gets trapped in a remote Utah canyon Between A Rock And A Hard Place is peculiarly uplifting. 127 Hours begins with a somewhat baffling triptych of crowds exiting subway trains and home fans cheering from basketball court bleachers, but as the upbeat musical accompaniment ups the ante, it’s not long before we’re thrust into adrenaline-junkie James Franco’s last-minute and ominously haphazard packing. And as fingers search vainly, and oh-so-briefly for a Swiss army knife, we’re soon jolting along offroad into a weekend away of solo canyoneering. In other hands, Aron’s testosterone-fuelled against-the-clock machismo would be excruciating, but even as he cycles off into the distance, Franco, with his childlike grace, manages to keep us with him.
Forever to be subtitled “the film where James Franco hacks his arm off”, the ending to 127 Hours will come as no surprise. In fact, once pathologically easygoing Aron falls and is trapped by a hefty boulder, it’s pretty clear this mountain isn’t moving for Muhammad. And as the title glibly flashes up on screen, we know this is going to be a cheerfully agonising 94 minutes. And as Aron sets about heaving, winching, side-slamming and chipping away at the slab with a cheap, blunt pen-knife, we also know we’re in it for the long haul. With only some ropes, a chicken sandwich, a water bottle, a CamelBak, a headtorch and two cameras, Aron travels light. Too light. He doesn’t even seem to own a mobile phone. And with no-one knowing where he might have gone to in the vast valleys of Utah, he’s only got himself to blame.
With ample time on his hands, and ever dwindling water supplies, Aron reminisces about the two girls he splashed around with in the underground, watery Big Dome, fantasising over the cool beers he could be drinking at their Scooby Doo party. His mind’s eye streaks to his 4×4 and the temptress bottle of Gatorade left behind in the boot. And tragically upbeat, Franco shines in a mimicked fantasy radio interview in which he comes crushingly to the conclusion he can’t even hope for anyone to come looking for him for at least four days. There are poetic moments too – a leg awkwardly manoeuvred into fifteen minutes of glorious sunshine or a crow that passes overhead each day, a shaman in the making. But as he narrates his story to camera in his dead-man-standing video-diary suffering from thirst-induced visions, Aron has to face up to the way he loved life and how he treated his family, ex-girlfriend and everyone.
In a searingly honest monologue, Aron waxes existential about his life’s collision course with this boulder – this rock had been waiting for him all his life, conjured into existence by wilful self-sufficiency and wanton self-exclusion. But as we witness memories of his family or flash back to his break-up with Rana, who leaves him at a basketball game after finally hitting the nail on the head with her realisation Aron would actually rather be by himself, there’s little beyond an outback adventure with pa to suggest why he turned his back on people and opened his heart so irrevocably to adventure.
At times thought-provoking and poetic, 127 Hours is a rollercoaster of thrills and well-timed spills. Boyle may not have enough confidence in his lead actor to send his pyrotechnics skywards, but Franco’s performance is pitch-perfect, mesmerising in his charming arrogance and pained pragmatism. With its awkward bookends about people and life, 127 Hours is above all a cautionary tale for loners. And like Aron’s adventure in the Big Dome with his doe-eyed admirers, there may be some climbing and squeezing to do, but it’s an exhilarating ride all the same.
127 Hours is released in the UK on 5th January 2011