By Armond White
After making Slumdog Millionaire, arguably the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, Danny Boyle surprisingly comes up with a not-bad film. 127 Hours, the true-life story of Aron Ralston’s 2003 rock-climbing mishap, makes acceptable use of Boyle’s usually egregious flamboyance. The potentially off-putting facts and limitations of how 28-year-old Ralston spent almost four days pinned by a boulder in Colorado’s Blue John Canyon and had to sever his own right arm to escape demands Boyle’s focus on the dilemma’s surface sentiment.
All of Boyle’s imagination goes into keeping the story’s narrative monotony from being boring. The film’s primary impact comes from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s hyperbolic videography. He shoots the works: highlighting atmosphere, water from a faucet traveling the core of a straw, telescopic scenes of street crowds, microscopic close-ups of Ralston’s contact lenses, split-screen multiplication of Ralston’s mountain-bike excursion, a few clever, triptych representations of the same activity to convey time’s passing and sometimes shots of Ralston from the rocky terrain’s POV.
These montages seem descriptive of life experience, though only superficially. They’re like TV-commercial details but with the extravagance of big-screen technological innovation: the blatant use of pixels and the nearly artificial hard, bright color that digital resolution gives to nature and flesh which, in themselves, becomes a form of entertainment. Boyle doesn’t concentrate on the spiritual crisis of Ralston’s imprisonment as Bresson’s great A Man Escaped pondered the depth of an isolated man’s sense of time and mortality. Boyle lacks depth and so plays to his mettle: turning Ralston’s predicament into a spectacular stunt. That’s why 127 Hours never descends into a vat of manure as Slumdog did aesthetically and literally.
Much of 127 Hours is a test of photographic realism—the latest step in Boyle’s constant play with techno trickery (such as his zombie flicks 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later) that makes him a frivolous Fincher. Aestheticizing Ralston’s calamity animates Boyle’s facile themes of modernity vs. nature, body vs. mind. When Ralston meets two female hikers and they dive into a grotto, the ostentatious splash makes a point of visual pixels, not analytically, as in Godard’s newest video provocation Film Socialisme, yet Boyle’s obvious style announces our contemporary physical and emotional distance from nature. This time, Boyle’s flamboyance is almost rigorous. Even the cheap distraction of a desert thunderstorm that nearly drowns Ralston is at least a distraction (until it briefly becomes a cheap fantasy tease about rescue).
Because Boyle’s subject is Ralston’s middle-class American arrogance regarding his own charm, ability and pleasure, 127 Hours doesn’t raise those embarrassing Slumdog issues of poverty, deprivation and social corruption. His stylistic excess that was so ruinous in the overwrought Slumdog and the equally far-fetched Scottish-junkies movie Trainspotting is relatively contained. It’s not so much that the story’s simplicity mandates narrative discipline (Boyle lacks discipline) but that his flashy fatuousness is uncannily right to convey an adult-kid’s folly—a truth Sean Penn neglected in Into the World. An aspect of Ralston’s situation suggests cosmic comedy; acknowledging dumb fate makes the later, grave family moments seem well measured and never insultingly mawkish like Slumdog.
The movie’s MVP is the ubiquitous James Franco, whose real-life propensity for art-stunts is reflected in Ralston’s recklessness. Franco channels some of the same expressive reserve he displayed in Altman’s The Company, embodying a quiet, always-thinking solitude. He doesn’t turn 127 Hours into a hipster version of Bresson (nor Van Sant’s insufferable desert trek Gerry); rather, he creates a fairly authentic portrait of a sweetly dumb American male loner who fears being stuck existentially
This is blessedly different from how Ryan Reynolds is used to condemn American foreign policy in Buried, the dour, one-man-movie political diatribe. Boyle’s flashbacks work off of Franco’s gift of gentle innocence. Questioning his own solitude—“You didn’t tell anyone?”—he then repeats, “Anyone?” in a good instance of self-critical shame. Boyle’s fancy staging (including a pocket cam’s double-image of Ralston) makes this po-mo moment genuinely thoughtful. Ralston’s memories (including a childhood hide-and-seek game recalled and regretted) aren’t merely mushy: memory and guilt reflect on each other because Franco’s characterization has substance. Despite this era of godless movies, listen to the way Franco says, “Please,” as a modest prayer. And when he does it again, saying, “Thank you,” at the adventure’s end, he could as well be addressing Boyle.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Runtime: 93 min.
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