A Review of 127 Hours by Joey Nolfi
Getting caught between a rock and a hard place is something any filmmaker would experience when crafting the film that’s to follow his career’s crowning, highly-decorated achievement. But in what is perhaps the strangest career move of the year, on-his-game-off-his-game director Danny Boyle chose to follow up 2008’s universally-inspiring Slumdog Millionaire with a film marketed around the fact that it’s lead single-handedly (quite literally) slices his own arm off in a cinematic recreation of one of the most prolific true-life happenings of the past 10 years. Perhaps Boyle never got the memo that bio-pictures are kind of the thing you do early in your career (or as said career is spectacularly crashing to the ground…I’m looking at you, Mira Nair), because taking a risk on such a literally unoriginal premise coming off the heels of such prolific acclaim could have proven disastrous for the rest of his career. But thankfully, this is Danny Boyle we’re talking about; the master of making the monotonous into magic. The man who revived the zombie genre and made watching the sun slowly sputter out of existence into one of the most thrilling cinematic achievements of 2007. So to take on this dramatic re-telling of real-life events has clearly been nothing short of a highlight (albeit a marginally less-impactful one) in Boyle’s ever-diversifying filmic career.
127 Hours truly takes the biodrama to an entirely new level, thanks in great deal to Boyle’s signaturely-strong visual characterization versus the spoken word (of which Boyle uses to his advantage here as well). The film is quite frankly a beautifully-stylized (and therefore contrasted) retelling of what has to be one of the shittiest days in recorded existence. The circumstances surrounding the loss of Aron Ralston’s arm are gruesome and unimaginably terrifying, seeing as he was trapped alone for…well…127 Hours, with the lower portion of said appendage caught quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Depending on how you look at it though, Ralston’s circumstances haven’t exactly proven detrimental, at least in the superficially fame-starved eyes of someone like myself. I’m actually sharpening my knife as we speak, considering if I’d known all I had to do was cut off my arm in order to have James Franco portray me in a movie earlier I’d already be at 75% limb capacity. Real talk.
All jokes aside, Boyle visually sets up his claustrophobic masterpiece with brilliant juxtapositions of overcrowded spaces and barren natural locales. Soccer stadiums filled with ravaging fans and neon signs reflective of contemporary commercial takeover are expertly intermingled with the stark wilderness that places life into perspective for one man. The cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak serves as a respectful observer of Ralston’s imprisoning environment in a fashion that is (despite the locale’s gruesome connotation) never once halting on the depiction of what we are seeing as truly beautiful in terms of the awe-inspiring, treated-as-a-void landscape that passes so many of us (like it did for Ralston) by in our daily lives. The shot-by-shot composition of a film like this becomes altogether important, seeing as the scenery that engulfs and enslaves Ralston could have easily become villainized, a brooding character in itself; yet Boyle’s respect for the landscape truly shines through the circumstances, attributing (which is entirely true) the situation to blind, societally-cluttered human error.
The intense build-up to the could-have-been-gimmicky conclusion functions as a step-ladder to salvation with one final emotional hurdle instead of a vapid, overwrought psychological breakdown resulting in senseless, exploitative self-mutilation (Saw, anyone?). Boyle’s dazzling iconic visual characterization takes the form of Ralston’s regret-induced flashbacks of past loves, familial shortcomings, and personal demons that one would expect to reflect upon in what is assumed to be the final moments of life. Simon Beaufoy’s script treads the lines of becoming externally melodramatic, yet harnesses such emotional scenes just enough to truly highlight what they are; come-and-go reflections on a life unfulfilled, that’s not truly ready to end yet, ultimately leading up to a complicated human decision. These sequences become most powerful when Boyle opts to intermix Ralston’s subterranean prison with his emotional reflections, blurring facets of his lonely life with his lonely state of affairs around a central piece of family furniture physically and visually manifesting itself within Ralston’s mind.
James Franco’s soon to be highly-decorated performance technically hits all the right notes and is clearly executed with a respect and deep immersion into the real-life Ralston’s emotional state and generally works as a vessel for Franco’s dramatic range we all already knew he possessed. There’s something about its impact that’s lacking, though. Something I can’t quite put my finger on…perhaps that lies within the fact that it’s so human it becomes almost flaccid, too realistic to inspire any kind of theatrical excitement. I don’t want to give off the impression that Franco fails with the material he’s given to work with, because he certainly doesn’t. There’s just a certain amount of bravado I think works well in roles like this, something I don’t quite think Franco nails here. He’s got the quirks of Ralston down, though, truly showcasing his comedic oddball flair when balancing the hilarious reception of hallucinatory images with the ever-present burden of excruciating pain.
There’s really not much more to say about 127 Hours. The problem I usually have with bio-dramas is their tendency to simply retell in favor of taking any sort of creative or narrative risks. The fear of alienating a paying public who assumedly want to see exactly what happened as it happened when crafting a semi-fictional retelling of such a highly-publicized event like this runs rampant in the bio-picture genre. Most directors settle for by-the-book dramatization of things everyone already knows, prompting my staunch “tell me something I can’t look up on Wikipedia” policy regarding my assessment of such films. Only in the hands of Danny Boyle do I think a picture like this could have worked, because Boyle encompasses everything that is truly, well, “right” in commercial filmmaking. He’s unafraid to let his creative team take risks, ultimately enhancing his beautiful attention to characterized action with aesthetic flair that in itself elevates 127 Hours to a more literally watchable level than its bio-slop brethren. The entire picture unfolds smoothly and effectively, tied together by a solid performance by the ever-enticing Franco.
So thank you, real-life Mr. Ralston, for indirectly donating your arm for the betterment of contemporary cinema.