127 Hours (2010)

11 January 2011

127 Hours is Danny Boyle's first film since his Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars. In it, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, the real-life rock-climber whose book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, this is adapted from by Boyle and fellow Slumdog script-writer Simon Beaufoy. In May 2003, Ralston set out alone in the remote Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, when he unexpectedly fell and had his right arm trapped by an immovable rock. Quick to realise the situation he found himself in, Ralston used his limited resources to survive for over five days before finally deciding to break his trapped arm so as to severe it with a blade and cut himself free.
It's a film not without its moments: the preamble before the titular ordeal begins does well to capture Ralston's character - a bit cocky, a bit weird, basically harmless, single-minded, and so on; very early after the fall itself, he assumes he can move the rock under which his arm is trapped, and puts every physical effort into it before realising the gravity of the situation; there's a great digital pull-back from the confines Ralston finds himself in, screaming for help, before the camera reveals a vast landscape and no other evidence of human activity; the moments in which Ralston finally cuts through his own arm is horrific, though doesn't outstay its welcome (the actual incident in real life took some 40 minutes).

These are all handled well, though their power seems inherent. Though I'll concede that Boyle may be more interested in treating Ralston as a celebratory 'character', given the harrowing subject matter of the film as a whole - and given how removed from rock-climbing a lot of us will actually be - he might have done better than to splice in memories, cut-aways, hallucinations and, as one endnote helpfully informs us, a 'premonition', all as a result of Ralston's increasing dehydration: the seemingly intended effect of these is to induce a real poignancy to the character's hopeless plight, but it doesn't help at all that they're all so banal and sentimental, and the overall effect is to dilute any real sense of claustrophobia or terror. (One recalls the finer strengths of Gus Van Sant's Gerry.)

As it is, Boyle can't seem to keep his camera still or his soundtrack quiet, at least not for very long, and it seems very possible that what drew him to the material is the practical challenge of adapting it; James Franco holds us but one suspects he could have had a better aesthetic judgement to aid him, one that could have better matched form and content so as to make the film a challenge, an endurance test of sorts, and not some all-too-easily digested extension of dramatic irony.