127 HOURS (2010, directed by Danny Boyle, 94 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, started directing back in the mid eighties, when all that restless, visual razzle-dazzle was bleeding over from the world of music videos. It has remained the defining element of Boyle’s style, keeping his ideas concise while the camera work is dependably witty and creative. Hitchcock, another British director known for his genius with kinetic movement, gave himself self-imposed limitations to challenge his roving camera in both Rope and Lifeboat, where his story remained bound to a single set. Boyle tackles a similar conundrum in his latest film, 127 Hours: how can he propel his story when its protagonist literally can’t move?
You can guess why Boyle relates to his lead character, real-life hiker Aron Ralston (played here by James Franco), a twenty-seven year old hiker living an athletic life, testing himself against nature as a rock climber. The euphoric feeling these experiences give him negate the need for human contact, and everyone from his parents to the two cute hikers he briefly meets in the opening, can not compete with his need to keep moving and pushing himself. This isolating lifestyle extracts its price when, while hiking alone in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, Aron falls down a deep stone crevice and lands with his hand wedged between a boulder and a rock wall. There he stood for five days before he did the unthinkable to free himself.
The incident was widely publicized, audiences all seem to be aware that Aron freed himself the same way a determined fox will free themselves from a trap: by tearing its limb off. Boyle could be accused of giving viewers a classier way of enjoying the thrills of a Saw sequel yet he finds a transcendent depth to the situation that makes the film as life-affirming as it is horrifying. And if you have to be trapped with one person, there are few young actors as ingratiating as James Franco. I was reminded of the young Paul Newman; like Newman, Franco’s good looks are almost off-puttingly pretty yet there’s an integrity and a lack of vanity that keeps him invitingly human. For all the ingeniousness of Boyle’s direction, it wouldn’t work half as well without as enthralling a character as Franco’s Aron.
And while Aron can’t move, the story itself never stops going forward; through desperation, determination, insanity, reverie and finally that brutal, life-saving act itself. The crowd I watched it with moaned and cheered on cue, finally exiting the theater with a buzzing euphoria. It’s no surprise that Boyle could make a story of an Indian kid becoming a millionaire into a crowd-pleaser, who would’ve guessed he could do the same for a man sawing off his own arm?