Danny Boyle challenged himself to make a watchable movie about a guy who amputates his own arm. Did he succeed?
Danny Boyle’s movies don’t always agree with me—and not in the way Danny Boyle’s movies are intended not to agree with me. Sure, Boyle’s known for his hyperactive, music-video photography, but the thing I remember most about his movies is how nasty they can be. The outhouse in Slumdog Millionaire? The vomiting not-zombies of 28 Days Later? Everything about Trainspotting? Boyle has never been one to coddle his audience, and in 127 Hours he doesn’t spare your stomach from turning.
The film chronicles, what else, 127 hours (and a bit before and after) in the life of outdoorsman-turned–field surgeon Aron Ralston (James Franco). In the film, Ralston sets out on a hiking trip in Blue John Canyon near Moab, Utah. He packs light (a couple of water bottles, some basic hiking gear, and what I think was a leftover burrito) and tells no one where he’s going. Then he falls down a canyon and a boulder pins his right arm.
If you know a lick about the story, you’ll know he eventually decides to amputate his arm—with a tiny, dull knife—rather than starve to death alone. It’s such a perfectly tragic situation that it almost begs to be translated to film.
Problem is, an immobile hero doesn’t make for much visual stimulation. That a filmmaker like Boyle—who seems to suffer from a filmic ADD that manifests itself brilliantly—chose such a project seems odd at first. But this is a guy who seems to enjoy challenging himself as much as he likes challenging his viewers. Boyle, of course, is daring his audience to look away during the grisly amputation scene, but he’s also daring himself to make a watchable movie about a guy who cuts off his own arm. Does he succeed?
Absolutely—and that alone is enough of a reason to recommend the movie. What’s more impressive, he’s made a surprisingly fleet film, one that zips along gamely without sparing you from the existential torment that must have plagued its protagonist. James Franco, reliable but untested in such a capacity, succeeds brilliantly at telegraphing Ralston’s dread. He plays Ralston as an ordinary guy who is forced to make an extraordinary decision: he screams, complains, goes a bit nuts, and then, when recognition finally dawns, he becomes almost superhumanly focused on the task at hand. Franco makes all of his moods compelling and believable.
It’s Boyle’s job, though, to take all that bottled angst and make it entertaining. Boyle uses the time before the accident wisely, giving us exhilarating panoramas of the Utah desert and an efficient glimpse into Ralston’s non-trapped persona. He’s a charming geek, but not in a Seth Cohen way; when asked jokingly by a couple of cute female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) if he “likes to party,” he responds enthusiastically and without a hint of self-awareness. Harmless in this context, his obliviousness leads to his eventual captivity. The film’s early moments do a good job of equipping Ralston with the emotional tools that will dictate his behavior in (and help him escape from) the canyon.
And while he’s down there, Boyle keeps things lively, cutting between Ralston’s frank (and sometimes hilarious) conversations with himself and hallucinations of his family, friends, and the girl who got away (Harry Potter‘s Clemence Poésy). Reviewers have taken him to task for not letting us dwell too much on the crushing dread Ralston must have felt. I don’t disagree, but I wonder how much I would have enjoyed a film that shows its hero’s mind wandering from one bleak eventuality to the next.
Though this really isn’t a film that’s meant to be “enjoyed” as such. And to be sure, Boyle makes us cringe far more often than giggle. But while the film is exhilarating, uplifting, and admirable in its technique, it also fails to leave much of an impression. I emerged from the theater choking back tears, ready to fire off the most glowing review I’d written in ages. But even by the time I got home, some of the film’s luster had faded.
It feels almost indecent to say so, but maybe this was the fault of Ralston’s pedestrian revelations: he decides to escape for, what else, his family and friends. I’m not demanding that his motivations be startlingly original. This is a true story, and real people do things for real reasons. His thought process, though, won’t upend the way you think about life.
Whatever the reason, 127 Hours didn’t stick to the ribs. The cut is deep, but it won’t take long to heal.