By Robert Mann.
British director Danny Boyle has always been a filmmaker to attract a fair amount of critical acclaim (even if the box office results for this films haven’t always reflected this) but the runaway critical, commercial and awards success of his last film, Slumdog Millionaire, have really raised the bar for him and with that the level of expectation for whatever his next film might be.
So, understandably, 127 Hours – a film which couldn’t be more different from Boyle’s last directorial effort, being mostly based around one lone character compared to his previous film which was set in India, one of the most crowded countries in the world – has been pegged for greatness and probable awards success ever since it was first announced. Owing far more to last year’s Buried – a film which literally featured only one character and took place entirely within a coffin buried deep beneath the ground – than to Boyle’s last film, 127 Hours is based on the life story of American mountain climber Aron Ralston, who gained fame in May 2003 when, while canyoneering in Utah, he was forced to amputate his own lower right arm with a dull knife in order to free himself after he became trapped by a boulder – an incident that was documented in his own 2004 autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
While considerably more gruesome than the kind of content that tends to get the awards attention, the inspiring true life story of survival against all odds is just the kind of thing to potentially make the film a standout performer in this year’s awards race. To immediately assume that this film will repeat the awards success of Slumdog Millionaire, however, would be a foolish assumption to make. Prior to his last film, Boyle was not used to receiving much awards attention for his films – hence, it could be argued that it may have been a fluke – and, as last year’s Buried demonstrated, a film based mostly around one character in a limited setting is a very tricky thing to pull off. Does 127 Hours live up to the hype then or does it feel like the name of the film is as much a description of the experience for us as an audience as it is for the protagonist?
Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a lone mountain climber with a real passion for what he does and who mostly keeps to himself apart from an encounter with hikers Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who he agrees to guide through the treacherous but beautiful terrain of the remote Utah desert. He finds himself facing a true life or death situation, however, when his hand becomes trapped under a boulder in Blue John Canyon and it appears that no help is coming, with him not having told anyone where he has gone and the desert region being completely deserted. While he tries to free himself over the course of six hellish days beneath the blazing sun of the desert, he looks back on the events that brought him there and the people in his life – his parents (Treat Williams and Kate Burton) and sister Sonja (Lizzy Caplan), his ex-girlfriend Rana (Clémence Poésy) and Kristi and Megan. As time runs out, Aron must face the ultimate test of courage if he is to survive.
While he was stuck in Blue John Canyon, the real Aron Ralston filmed a daily video diary, the footage of which has previously only been shown to close friends. Before shooting began both Danny Boyle and James Franco were allowed to view the footage in order to depict events in the film as accurately as possible. Knowing this means that we know that what we are seeing is truly accurate and in no way fictionalised. You see, in terms of creating an unwavering sense of realism and authenticity, 127 Hours never fails once. The effort taken to ensure realism and accuracy doesn’t end there either with the real Ralston having told Boyle to have Franco recite lyrics by his favourite band, Phish, the camcorder used in the film being the actual one that Ralston used when he was in the canyon and special effects designer having heavily worked with medical professionals to recreate Ralston’s perspective during the arm cutting scene as accurately as possible. The sense of realism, of course, doesn’t simply come from advance preparation for the film but the making of the film itself. Detailing Aron’s repeated attempts to escape from the situation he finds himself in, the film never loses its sense of realism for a moment, only losing its grip on reality in the understandably trippy hallucination scenes.
Everything in this film seems completely realistic with virtually every single component contributing in some way to the authentic look and feel of the overall product. The shaky camera style – particularly evident in the fast and kinetic opening scenes that see Aron leaving the confines of the city taking his mountain bike out onto the open terrain of the Utah desert – and grainy picture quality that didn’t seem quite right throughout ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ prove to be a more natural fit here, the excellent cinematography giving the film a look that is at the same time both raw and edgy and vibrant and colourful. The desolate but also beautiful setting of the Utah desert is captured superbly, the landscapes of desert plains, canyons and underground caves being shot beautifully and colour is used to great effect, the vibrant pure blue of an underground lake which features before Aron becomes trapped providing a notable contrast to the lighter, less vibrant colours in the confined environment he comes to find himself in. You might think that, once he becomes trapped, the more restricted setting would limit the potential for standout cinematography but this simply isn’t the case. Whilst some of the most beautiful instances of cinematography do take place outside of the environment within which Aron is trapped, the camerawork in the canyon is no less impressive. A range of imaginative camera angles are made use of – something that gives us a unique perspective on events – and if often seems like there is shortage of differing angles from which to provide fresh perspectives, the camerawork being very creative. Also very effective is the inclusion of segments filmed on the handycam that the character has with him – i.e. his video diary – which gives us an insight into what he is thinking at the time – something also achieved through the depictions of his hallucinations on screen – and on occasion steadycam is also used to show us exactly what he is seeing as well as very stylish editing and some good use of split screen in places.
While in the confined setting things could very easily become dull but largely this is avoided as a result of all this effective cinematography combined with the occasional departure from the environment of the canyon through a zoom out to a wide aerial view showing us the desert within which the canyon is located – something which perfectly highlights just how alone Aron is in his predicament – as well as flashbacks to his childhood, the last time he saw his parents, time with his ex-girlfriend and his encounter with Kristi and Megan and the aforementioned hallucinations which give us a very personal insight into Aron’s mind, working together with the video diary to show us how his ordeal is affecting him and what he is thinking the whole time.
The flashbacks don’t simply serve as an insight into what Aron is thinking throughout the ordeal, however, or even as an escape from the confines of the canyon but rather they fill in his backstory and develop him as a character, allowing us to understand who he really is, which makes us understand and like him much more. The video diary serves much the same function, allowing him to speak directly to us and in a way that doesn’t seem like lazy writing. The writing here is anything but lazy. Written by Boyle himself (his first time as a screenwriter) and Simon Beaufoy, who previously wrote the Boyle films The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, the screenplay is virtually flawless. Sure, much like Buried this film is largely a one man show and with that comes some of the same flaws that were present in that film but the setting is nowhere near as limited as in that film and the flaws are not quite so evident, the writing being so much more layered and the dialogue so much more engaging. A film based around just one character for much of the duration can be a very tricky thing to pull off because if they don’t have anyone to speak to there isn’t usually much opportunity for conversation but Boyle and Beaufoy have not difficulty in delivering some truly excellent dialogue here, something that is quite an achievement.
Whether to speaking to the camera or himself – something he does a lot, particularly during the rather surreal hallucination sequences – what Aron says never disappoints and the metaphysical realisations he has about himself and life are conveyed excellently through the most simple and at the same time complex medium of speech. Of course, some of the accolades for this must also go to James Franco who is simply sensational in the leading – and for most of the film, only – role. Effortlessly cool and supremely charismatic as Aron, he completely convinces and has no difficulty in carrying the film all on his own. With a performance that makes for an excellently realised character, his transformation from cool carefree adventurer to scared, broken man is terrific, the looks of pain and agony that we see on his face seemingly completely authentic and the character’s frustrations nailed perfectly, something that makes his struggle to escape completely believable. Every bit as believable, however, is the way he still shows a sense of humour in the video diaries, displaying great courage and humility throughout the ordeal, the character never giving up on his attempt to escape and the moment he makes the ultimate sacrifice is all the more harrowing for Franco’s fantastic contribution.
This moment itself is superbly executed. As each attempt to escape fails, the decision to cut off his arm seems more and more logical and when it does happen we completely understand just why he has no choice but to do so. Now about that scene. An infinitely disgusting but undeniably necessary one, the scene that shows Ralston cutting his arm off is certainly not for the squeamish but in showing us the horrific act of self mutilation that he had to carry out in order to survive it is essential that it be seen. The entire film is essentially building up to this one scene and Boyle doesn’t squander a single opportunity to shock or move us in depicting Ralston’s desperate act of self preservation. First showing him breaking his arm and then cutting it in rather gory detail, this key scene ensures that this is not a film for those of a squeamish temperament and is appropriately horrifying although knowing that he survives makes it a little more bearable to watch. Easily the most intense scene in the film – but not the only intense one, a scene involving a lightning storm being another good example – this is a very effective culmination for the film’s events and if you can stand watching it you really should to get the full impact of the courage displayed by Aron. Also of note is the almost cool way in which he just walks away afterwards. In other aspects of the film, the secondary cast members are also good but, their screen time obviously very limited, the show really belongs to Franco and the combination of original music by A.R. Rahman and a good soundtrack consisting of well chosen songs make for musical accompaniment that really works and complements what is happening on screen well.
The only thing that holds the film back a bit is its confined setting. Just like Buried it is hard not to feel like the film does drag a little bit in places – although obviously not as much as the ordeal did in real life – but given that, with just one character for most of the duration and a very limited setting, this is a hard thing to avoid completely, Boyle has done a very good job of making sure that this isn’t a major problem, the film managing to be very engaging almost consistently throughout. Technically very well constructed and hindered only occasionally by its limited setting, 127 Hours is undoubtedly less feel good than Slumdog Millionaire but as an inspirational tale it is hard not to be impressed by the incredible feat depicted on screen. What the real Aron Ralston – who has a cameo appearance at the end of the film – did to survive was amazing and it makes for quite a remarkable film.
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