Saturday, June 22, 2024

“127 HOURS”

THE STORYWhile exploring a remote canyon in Utah, mountaineer and adventurer Aron Ralston becomes trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. Over the next five days, Ralston examines his life and considers his options, leading him to an agonizing choice: to amputate his arm so he can extricate himself and try to make his way back to civilization or remain pinned to the canyon wall and likely die.

THE CASTJames Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy & Lizzy Caplan

THE TEAMDanny Boyle (Director/Writer) & Simon Beaufoy (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes


Danny Boyle’s reputation is unsettled in comparison to other auteurs who rose to fame in the 1990s. He has worked with some of the best screenwriters of his generation, proven his mastery in a wide range of genres, and has had crossover mainstream success with 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” He even snagged an Academy Award for Best Director. Despite these accomplishments, Boyle is considered to be a tier below directors like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. It’s not his propensity for sequels (which Nolan has done) or his limited writing credits (which Fincher also has) that stifles Boyle. Rather, it’s his inconsistency.

Boyle has one of the most interesting start-and-stop careers of any director who is considered “great.” He can’t seem to string together more than two or three releases at a time without a misstep, or a curio that later gains a cult following. He followed the era-defining “Trainspotting” (1996) with the critically-panned “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997). Then, he delivered a stone-cold zombie classic with “28 Days Later” (2002), only to return with the well-received but little-seen “Millions” (2004). This is admittedly a belated introduction to “127 Hours” (2010), but the unique trend of Boyle’s career is important to consider when looking at the survival drama.

It not only bucked the trend in terms of Boyle’s contributions as a writer, but “127 Hours” also saw him hunker down and deliver a massive success after releasing his most celebrated film, the aforementioned “Slumdog Millionaire.” If there ever was a time when it seemed as though Boyle was a genuine Hollywood force, “127 Hours” was it. The film is an adaptation of Aron Ralston’s memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” This memoir recounts the five-day period in which Ralston was trapped in a Utah canyon and eventually forced to cut off his own arm in order to get to safety. It’s the sort of high-concept, harrowing true story that gets producers salivating to secure the rights, but it was also tricky in terms of execution. A man needing to sever a limb is a dramatic ending, but a mishandling of the five days that precede it would result in a film as tedious and unpleasant as Ralston’s real-life experience.

The film needed someone who could thread the needle between excitement and empathy, which is why Boyle was the perfect choice. His frenetic visual style is his best-known technical attribute, but equally important is the director’s investment in his characters. One never gets the sense that Boyle is looking down on the people in his films – literally or metaphorically. He prefers to stick things out on their level and to experience the plot, alongside them, in real time. “127 Hours” is perhaps the single greatest testament to this storytelling impulse. The aforementioned freneticism is on full display during the first act, when Ralston decides to take an impromptu hiking trip; but, once he finds himself pinned under a rock, the shots become static and more angular.

James Franco was the second choice to play Ralston after Boyle favorite Cillian Murphy, and Franco delivers the finest performance of his career. The actor is notorious for being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none when it comes to his artistic exploits. His choices as an actor and director, while often compelling on paper, may end up being half-baked in execution. There are no such pitfalls here. Franco is at his best when his neuroses betray his relaxed demeanor, and Boyle knows how to calibrate these qualities to maximize the drama onscreen. The scene in which Ralston hosts a fake talk show with his video camera is a dizzying showcase that could have easily tipped over into heavy-handedness if improperly handled. The character’s attempt to conceal his fear with humor culminates with the sobering realization that he’s recording his own death. Franco drops his actorly schtick in real time, allowing for sincerity to shine through.

The trick with any biographical film is creating the illusion of hope, even when there’s a foregone conclusion around the corner. “127 Hours” manages the rare feat of making one feel as though Ralston will figure a way out of the canyon, especially with energetic montages of his attempted escapes and needle drops like Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” At the end of the day, Boyle is a showman, and his staging of the flash flood sequence is among the cruelest and most dynamic showcases in the film. Ralston awakens from his dehydrated stupor to find that a storm has come over the canyon, and the rainfall allows him to wash out from under the rock. The kicker, of course, is that the whole thing is a dream, and the character is still trapped. It’s a trick we’ve seen plenty of times, but the execution makes it forgivable.

The climax of the film, in which Ralston cuts through his arm, is a triumph of sound design and framing. It’s extremely difficult to get through, and one’s reluctance to rewatch “127 Hours” over the years may stem from how disturbing the sound is of Ralston striking his own tendon. The fact that it bothers viewers so much only furthers the notion that Boyle and company knew exactly how to grip the audience. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is effective.

Less effective, however, is the screenplay. Boyle wisely reunited with his “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe, Simon Beaufoy, but their handling of the material is similar and, therefore, less exciting. Both “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” use the framework of an important moment in a character’s life as a means of reflecting on the past through a series of expository flashbacks. The flashbacks in “127 Hours” are more predictable, given their basis in reality. As is the case with most single-location dramas, the tension is released whenever the film goes away from said location. All the best moments in “127 Hours” occur in the canyon with Ralston. The rest are extraneous, and therefore easy to pinpoint as less successful.

Ultimately, however, “127 Hours,” is a success. It represents Boyle’s apex as a technical storyteller and Franco’s apex as a movie star. Survival films are generally difficult to watch, given their dire subject matters, and there times when hitting standard dramatic beats inhibits the film’s creative flow, but “127 Hours” is about as entertaining and exciting as the genre gets.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Danny Boyle’s technical mastery is on full display, and he manages to get a career-best performance out of James Franco.

THE BAD - The film’s reliance on flashbacks releases too much of the dramatic tension.

THE OSCARS - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score & Best Original Song (Nominated)

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Danny Boyle’s technical mastery is on full display, and he manages to get a career-best performance out of James Franco.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The film’s reliance on flashbacks releases too much of the dramatic tension.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-adapted-screenplay/">Best Adapted Screenplay</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-film-editing/">Best Film Editing</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-score/">Best Original Score</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-song/">Best Original Song</a> (Nominated)<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"127 HOURS"