There will be many people who will hear about a roughly three minute long sequence in Danny Boyle’s riveting new film 127 Hours and decide, based on that one sequence alone, that they will not see the film at all. And that’s a shame because what 127 Hours does is nothing short of a movie miracle – it takes the most desperate and haunting of situations and turns it into something life-affirming and unexpectedly inspirational. Based on the true life story of skilled mountain climber Aron Ralston, the film recounts a horrifying accident he encountered where he remained trapped in a mountainside crevice, for 127 hours, with little to no food or water, while his right arm was pinned under a boulder which had fallen on top of him. So, you might be asking, what might that three minute sequence I mentioned above entail? Yup – you guessed it – the graphic removal of his arm in order to set himself free.
James Franco, in nothing short of a tour de force performance as Ralston that has to be seen to be believed, has you hooked from the film’s busily frenetic opening moments, all of which are a blur of sound, energy and momentum. Boyle, in tandem with two phenomenal cinematographers (Anthony Dod-Mantle, who also shot Slumdog Millionaire for Boyle, and Enrique Chediak, who shot the Boyle-produced 28 Weeks Later), displays an amazingly kinetic cinematic vocabulary that owes much to the style of Tony Scott, another Brit with a hyper-stylized view of life. What could be boring and banal in the hands of a lesser filmmaking team, especially considering the limited setting and small cast, never approaches anything less than thrilling. John Harris’ swift and propulsive editing is in perfect harmony with A.R. Rahman’s pounding musical score, while the spare and forbidding production design of the cave (courtesy of Suttirat Larlarb, who designed costumes for Boyle on Slumdog and Sunshine), is nothing short of amazing. The audience spends almost the entire film trapped with Ralston in a standing-up position, and because of how real and menacing everything looks and feels, you never get the sense that any part of the film was shot on a set.
But beyond the obvious and numerous technical merits that 127 Hours has at its disposal, the power of the story lies in its script, which was co-written by Boyle and his Slumdog counterpart Simon Beaufoy. Beautifully framing the narrative around Ralston’s flashbacks and hallucinations while intercutting with the predicament that he faced, Boyle and Beaufoy have you in their pocket right from the start. The most touching part of the film revolves around Ralston’s video-recorded messages that he made for his parents in the event of his death. The fact that he did this – and then lived – makes the story all the more poignant. Boyle and Beaufoy’s dialogue always sounds real and natural, and with someone as effortless as Franco in the lead role, it’s no wonder how organic and raw everything feels. Franco, as an actor, is someone I’ve come around on in a big way. Early in his career, he left me deeply unimpressed by his work in the Spiderman films and in garbage like Annapolis (a laughably bad movie to begin with), Flyboys, The Great Raid, Tristan & Isolde, and City by the Sea, all non-starters that left me wondering what the big deal was. Then, as if all of a sudden, Franco was on fire: In the Valley of Elah (a strong bit-part), Pineapple Express (an instant classic performance), and Milk (a great, Oscar-nominated supporting turn). And now with his commanding and deeply felt work in 127 Hours, he’s rapidly becoming one of my favorites. He reunites with his Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green for 2011’s Your Highness, a medieval stoner comedy with Danny McBride and Nathalie Portman.
127 Hours will be a tough sit for many people. The arm removal scene is graphic in an extremely honest way. Never becoming gratuitous yet never shying away from the awful truth of the situation, it’s a positively squirm-inducing passage that is mesmerizing in all the ways that powerful cinematic images can be. Fantastic sound design is put to great use, and through some very skilled editing and shooting, you actually see less than you think you are seeing…that’s Boyle’s genius as a visual storyteller. But here’s the deal, at least for me – I wanted to see that fucking arm come off…I wanted to breathe that big sigh of relief once he set himself free. To go to the theater and to watch the film but then to cover your eyes during this sequence would be to rob you of the catharsis that both Ralston/Franco and the audience collectively shares. Personally, I found the entire sequence to be electrifying in the best possible way. 127 Hours, in a weird, perverse way, is sort of like the ultimate Thanksgiving movie, because it’ll definitely make you thankful and appreciative that you’ll likely never be in the same spot that Ralston found himself in (unless you happen to live in Connecticut and enjoy self-cleaning your furnace…do a Google search…). Boyle, like De Palma, Tarantino, Scott, and Noe, is all about pure-filmmaking, boiling things down to their filmic essence and filtering them through a hypnotic array of possibilities. Everything feels wonderfully in synch with one another while watching a film from Boyle. 127 Hours is a masterpiece and the crowning achievement in his body of work thus far.