Thursday, 6 January 2011
Danny Boyle’s latest film, 127 Hours, reimmagines the true story of a swaggering adrenalin junkie, Aron Ralston, who heads out into the lunar landscape of Moab, Utah on his mountain bike. Canyoneering (a mixture of cycling, hiking and climbing) provides him with his endorphin release of highs that makes him feel invincible. But, when his arm is trapped by a boulder in a deep ravine, this sports badass is soon reduced to a scared little boy. The film captures Ralston’s increasingly desperate attempts to roll the stone away and the tormenting realisation, captured on his Blair-witch style video diary, that he could be crushed by a trillion year old landscape.
It has been widely reported that Ralston escapes by hacking off his arm. Boyle’s depiction becomes one of those moments when a cinema audience both squirms with empathetic dread and relishes the butchery. At this point, there is a real nerve-shredding connection between audience, character and visuals. But such connections are hard to come by in the rest of the film.
Boyle becomes so committed to trying to capture Ralston’s reckless energy and will-to-live that the film loses any real emotional connection with the central character. In a film so closely focussed on one character this is a failure. Ralston's experience is lost in a whirlwind of showy cinematic tricks and techniques: split screen images, kinetic editing, flashbacks and an obtrusive soundtrack (Dido, Sigur Ros, A.R.Rahman, Bill Withers). This one-man agony opera is played with conviction by James Franco but the performance is overwhelmed by what begins to feel like an end-of-year film school project. Boyle's penchant for technical exhibitionism reduces this Romantic battle between man and nature into a comic hero caper.
The single man trapped in a claustrophobic space (see Ryan Reynolds in 2010's Buried) is a challenging ask for any director. One suspects that Boyle was attracted to such subject matter, in part, as a reaction to the narrative expansiveness of Slumdog Millionaire. But rather than trusting in the finely observed details of this human story, the acting and an audience’s ability to engage with both, Boyle bottles it and resorts to a cinematic box of tricks. Flashbacks to friends, lovers, family and two female hikers Ralston met before the accident have no emotional weight and feel like idle intrusions into the editing suite.
127 Hours is a disappointment and only saved from being an indulgence by the breathtaking landscapes conjured by cinematographers Antony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak. In these images the audience are given a glimpse of the real vistas, physical and psychological, this film might have explored if it had dared to channel some of Aron Ralston's spirit of adventure.