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Film Reviews

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours Reviewed
Eftihia Stefanidi , January 7th, 2011 10:16

Danny Boyle is adept at making spectacle out of human misery, but Eftihia Stefanidi thinks his bag of cinematic tricks might overwhelm this minimal tale of a trapped climber.

One of the most anticipated films of the year, 127 Hours has everything a faithful cinema-goer could want: a) a true story of great suspense and emotional drama b) the return of an Oscar-winning director, whose previous hit Slumdog Millionaire we all love to hate and c) time management champion and multi-idol James Franco as the lead.

127 Hours recounts the affecting true story of American mountain climber Aaron Ralston who was trapped in Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 2003. While ‘canyoning’ (a type of free fall slide between rocks) his forearm became lodged under a boulder, confining him into one of earth’s deepest holes. With very little means at his disposal, Ralston managed to escape the inevitable. Following numerous efforts to extricate his arm from the rock, he eventually proceeds to amputate it using a penknife. Fragments of his experience were documented on a camcorder, footage of which Ralston kept as a diary (fearing that he might not survive), and were later recorded in his post-survival autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

A dramatically poignant narrative with an added twist seems to be a guarantee for a winning story; however, adapting such a chronicle for the screen means working with a single actor in one location. Boyle is not a novice though, and lives for these challenges. He is unbelievably capable of turning works of literature into pulsating cinematic spectacles. However, in 127 Hours his acclaimed talent of livening up the dark and making misery seem life affirming is not as effective.

Before our main character steps into the abyss, the first 15 per cent of the film oozes action – clearly the only chance for the director to kinetically arouse the audience before the pace grinds to a halt. Aggressive, loud music and a rapid montage of busy avenues occupied by thousands of people forms the backdrop for the hyper-active Ralston (James Franco) who mountain bikes like there is no tomorrow. Even a taste of romance is embedded in the adrenaline. Ralston stumbles across two girls and shares with them the secrets of the Canyon (and his untamed temperament). A few minutes later, the three of them will be diving into private waters from vertiginous heights. This impromptu encounter will be a valuable addition to Ralston’s library of erotic dreams and eccentric hallucinations from which he will repeatedly draw when close to giving up hope.

Knowing where this is all heading to, we are nonetheless still holding on to our seats as Ralston makes that critical slip. From that moment, the vibrant colours give way to a dry and washed out palette of pixels. The fun part is over. Boyle majestically captures the magnitude of the landscape and the depths of the deserted land, taking the viewer, in a fast-forward wave, from the peaceful surface of Utah’s Canyon all the way down into its turbulent depths. As the restless hiker spreads out all the tools from his rucksack, Boyle does the same, Ralston’s handycam serves as an ingenious tool for the picture to regain mobility. Cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Enrique Chediak (28 Weeks Later) also masterly collaborate here - their agility enables them to experiment and approach the subject from various angles, enhancing the experience.

But from now on, the sole opportunities for escapism from this terrifying situation are Ralston’s flashbacks. A collage of childhood memories, recent moments with his ex-girlfriend and bizarre optical illusions are juxtaposed with the immediate torment. For the most part, they shed some light on Ralston’s background, highlighting his free spirit and desire to live life to the fullest without having to answer to anyone, except maybe his family (his love for his family is the driving force to escape). Introducing his background in this way is a clever idea, but, disappointingly, it doesn’t add much. I dare say, it almost distracts you from the real event; where you actually want to be is by this man’s side to witness, step by step, his agony and desire to be released. Conversely, when the above subtext is hinted at in real time through monologue - when Ralston, sans sentimentality, speaks directly to his camera - that is exactly where the emotional treasures are kept.

Yet, as Boyle eventually exhausts any external resources, he then opts for extreme close ups and unconventional point of views that scrutinise the experience: micro shots of insects, flashing thunderstorms, and close ups of thirsty lips, to such a degree that we even (stupendously) get to see Ralston’s tongue from the bottom of his water bottle as he struggles to reach for a few drops to quench an impossible thirst. Boyle explains that he was emphasizing Ralston’s unbearable feeling of ‘thirst’ by amplifying the character’s sensibility of his context. Point taken, but combining this with an equally animated assortment of facial expressions employed by Franco, it all becomes a bit too much, or, let’s say unnecessary.

Boyle might have feared that minimalism wasn’t the way to go when dealing with a story of such cinematic limitations. Instead, he sought solutions that would help boost the action. As a matter of fact though, he shouldn’t have looked elsewhere; it is evident while watching the film that the most influential tool at his disposal is his protagonist. Focusing on him and steering clear from special effects, split screens, and other discordant stylistic appliances, he could have possibly quelled any doubts about his directing credentials (Danny Boyle may be known as a stylistic ‘chameleon,’ but 127 Hours is not far from the phantasmagorical explosions of Slumdog Millionaire).

All the same, it would be disrespectful not to acknowledge the decent way he treats the film’s flesh cutting scenes. You will notice, if you manage to continuously stare at the screen, succeeding in not placing your hands in front of your eyes during Ralston’s gruesome act, that Boyle handles the amputation scenes with a dispassionate gaze. As for Franco’s approach, he intelligently captures the essence of Aaron Ralston and Franco’s stash of facial expressions excruciatingly enfold themes of ‘hope’, ‘sorrow’, ‘despair’ and ‘pain’ without being preposterous. I can’t say if it is due to the ‘method-acting’ (as per director’s orders), or to the profound character research (Franco worked the role after having meetings with Ralston and watching some of his own footage), but the on-screen Ralston remains a fully fledged human being until the very end where he is rescued.

127 Hours is arguably a gruelling amalgam of torment and exuberance, featuring a one-man show by one of the most talented contemporary American actors. With Boyle’s veteran manoeuvres, it reaches dazzling heights, though his hyperbolic enthusiasm and superfluous adornments - irregularly disrupts the shivers. You will be shaken, but not deeply convinced.