When the movie started all that I knew about it was that Danny Boyle was the director, James Franco starts in it and its a real life story of a person named Aron Ralston. But Danny Boyle is good at taking a grimy subject, flashing it a smile and stabbing it through the heart with a big, fat, dripping shot of adrenalin.
There’s only so much you can do with a movie like 127 Hours. Director Danny Boyle does all of it, but in the end his film still hinges almost entirely on the performance of James Franco. Franco is an actor who, till now, always tried hard but never really achieved anything beyond mediocre results. An enthusiasm for acting, a willingness to take on challenging projects, and movie star good looks were always there, but talent? Until now I’d never really been sure. But in taking on the true life story of trapped climber Aron Ralston, Franco finds himself in the perfect place at the perfect time. It’s a role which. if played by someone else, might have just been the story of some guy trapped in a hole. Franco finds something more.
There’s little more gruesome and extreme than the story of Aron Ralston, an American outdoors nut who in 2003 went canyoning alone in Utah without telling anyone where he was going. James Franco plays the frenetic 27 year old as an experience junkie and sociable loner. He bombs through the desert on a mountain bike leaving a trail of dust behind him. He meets girls in the wilderness, makes them laugh and leaps into underground lakes with them before saying goodbye. He bounds over gulleys. Then he misses his footing, slips into a canyon and a boulder follows him down, pinning his arm to the wall just as he lands on his feet. He’s trapped, and the film’s kineticism turns in on itself: like Ralston, its energy is stuck in a hole.
From the off, Boyle winds up our nerves with split-screens, pumping music and archive inserts – and he never stops. We know, of course, that Ralston eventually escapes by carving off his arm with a penknife, so there’s a deep intake of breath when the accident happens early. Where will Boyle take us? It’s a great challenge to witness and it brings out the best in Boyle. Just don’t expect to breathe normally for some time.
Boyle focuses intensely on Ralston’s thoughts, both rational and delusional as the days pass. He tries pulleys. He tries scratching away at rock. He tries everything. Franco’s performance is a brilliant show of constrained muscularity. We see flashbacks of his relationships and realise that he has some ways to mend if he ever gets out alive. We’re stuck with Ralston, and we’re privy to his mind because he keeps record with a camcorder in his rucksuck. On top of that, Boyle uses every angle available to him, and AR Rahman’s score helps to capture and stress Ralston’s mental fragility.
We spend a few brief moments with Aron, before he’s trapped, as he races across the wilderness on his bike. On his way out towards solitude he’ll encounter two pretty hikers. They’ll invite him to a Scooby Doo theme party, and fantasizing about what it might have been like if he’d shown up is one of the many things that’ll keep him going during his long imprisonment. Most of the movie is spent there with him, trapped beneath a rock, for 127 hours of solitude. The only thing on screen is Franco’s Ralston, with no one to talk to, nothing to do but sit and struggle and despair. Somehow, Ralston never gives in to panic; he’s too capable, too smart, too savvy for that. That doesn’t mean, however, he has a way out.
A lesser filmmaker would have blanched at the prospect of spending an entire movie in one place, with one character, and nothing to do but stare. A lesser filmmaker would have panicked and cut away, perhaps to show us a rescue effort underway, or to fetishize his grieving family. Danny Boyle never does. He doesn’t need to, James Franco’s performance, sitting in that one spot, is that good.
Instead Boyle tries to find meaning in Ralston’s predicament. Aron sits and fantasizes about the choices he’s made and the people he loves. In more than one, feverish fantasy Ralston envisions himself freed and moving on. Some of these fantasy sequences are more successful than others. None of them are as good as the moments in which we simply sit with Franco, underneath that rock, and stare into the heavens looking for hope. None of those moments are as thrilling as his tiny triumphs of improvisation, his steely-eyed determination to find a way out, the minutiae of minute by minute life turned into grim life and death decisions. There’s some attempt to make a point about the way we’re all connected and how much we need each other, or to make a statement about the power of the human spirit.
Franco’s best moments are almost entirely silent. The one that’ll stick with me, perhaps forever, comes after he’s finished the grisly, horrifying work of freeing himself. Aron stumbles back to survey what he’s done and for a moment, just a moment, there’s a smile. Standing there bleeding and dying, he steps back and grins, it’s the grin of someone who never thought he’d leave one spot and, no matter what happens from there on out knows he’s already won. His dirty, bloody, crooked smile in the face of unexpected freedom says everything there is to know about what’s happened and what matters most to Aron in those terrible moments. It’s a masterful performance by Franco, sharply directed with all the visual flair he can bring to bear on a single location by an unflinching Danny Boyle.
The intelligent scriptural and visual treatment of the story makes sure that there is never a dull moment, despite the audience being effectively stuck in a cave with one anguished individual for 90 minutes. Given the near absence of supporting characters, the burden on James Franco to carry the movie was immense. He manages this with aplomb, eschewing sentimentality in his performance in favour of intricately carving out a highly credible and moving portrayal of a flawed man whose life is slowly ebbing away.
At the end, we stagger like Ralston from the dark into the light. We might have both our arms left, but our nerves are just as terrorised(and me.......well i was in tears at the end).