127 Hours - Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book by Aron Ralston, starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams - Rated R
I know it's been a Vader heavy year for me, but I can't deny my highest rating to a movie that left such a powerful impression on me.
How far would you go to survive? It’s a theme that has been visited many times but is always interesting. Films like 127 Hours allow the viewer to ask, “What would I do if I was in that situation?” If you can ask such a question, then you can also place yourself in the story. It also helps that Danny Boyle is directing because he is a filmmaker who can place an audience within a film and he’s willing to put his camera anywhere. It is also easy to become interested in a movie when you have an actor like James Franco to completely embody a character and create entertainment as well as inspiration.
The fact that 127 Hours is a compelling film is doubly impressive because it is based on a true story. If you want to go into this film completely fresh you need to stop reading right now. I don’t plan on spelling out everything that happens in this film, but the information I will cover would be considered a spoiler for other films, so fair warning.
Franco stars as Aron Ralston who, in 2003, went biking/hiking/rock climbing in Utah without telling anyone exactly where he was going. He fell into a crevice, knocking a boulder loose in the process. The boulder fell with him, pinning his right arm against the canyon wall. This is where that true story aspect becomes troublesome. If you remember the story from the news, or you’ve seen publicity for the film, or if you notice the “Based on a book by Aron Ralston” credit at the beginning of the film, then you know that he survives. That would seem to ruin the suspense of the film, but amazingly, it doesn’t.
Prior knowledge may put a damper on things, but 127 Hours makes up for that with intensity and an amazing performance. I can’t stress enough how great Franco is in this. One scene encompasses his entire performance. Ralston pretends to host a morning talk show playing the host, guest, and caller. It is equally hilarious and disturbing. The writing takes care of a bit of that, sure, but Franco makes the scene memorable. A role about physical and mental survival already demands a certain amount of ability, and Franco surpasses that to create humor and likability, two essential elements that allow a survival movie to rise above all of the rest. His performance had me rooting for Ralston more than any other character this year. Simply put, it’s one of the best performances of the year.
Franco nearly makes the movie by himself, but Boyle has quite a bit to do with it. It’s one thing to place the camera in an enclosed spot with a character; it’s another thing to place the camera inside a character. There is really no place too small for Boyle to give the audience an angle: a water bottle, inside a video camera, inside an arm. Those shots are visually interesting but they also help create a sense of claustrophobia.
This claustrophobic sense helps place the viewers inside Ralston’s head, as well. No, Boyle doesn’t have a shot inside Ralston’s brain or anything, but getting close to the character makes it easier to seamlessly integrate hallucinations, dreams, and memories. None of these moments felt forced or strange. It all felt natural.
The film isn’t all about being close, though. Boyle’s willingness to show the large scale images sets up an interesting comparison of two extremes. One shot may be inside a character’s arm but there is also a shot from miles above the canyon as well. That shot, which starts with Franco and pulls back, gave me chills.
In fact, many moments in this film gave me goose bumps. It also made me cringe. Stories of survival always contain their less pleasant moments, but 127 Hours shows these moments with such intensity that the film will undoubtedly be very difficult to watch for many viewers if not all. Brutal things have to happen on screen in this film, but unlike recent horror films, the point of the gore is not to dare you to look away, but to do you to imagine yourself in the character’s shoes. Yes, it is obviously impossible to truly know the pain Ralston went through without experiencing it yourself, but the filmmakers used more than just visuals to place you in the scene. The sound effects of the film are just as disturbing as the visuals. While they are not realistic sound effects, they do a much better job at simulating the sensation than reality could ever do.
127 Hours is one of the best films of the year simply for being able to put the audience through the emotional gamut. Add Boyle’s direction and camerawork (I haven’t mentioned it but I also liked his use of split screens) and you have something even more special. Round it out with an award-worthy performance from James Franco and I believe you have a movie that will stand the test of time. Does that make it the best movie of the year? Not necessarily (it has been a very good year for film, after all), but it has certainly made my shortlist.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I've seen this movie three times and I still grit my teeth and cringe when he gets stuck on that nerve. All of the foreboding details about the dullness of the knife made it that much worse.
Boyle puts the camera in a water tube and sends urine into the camera. There's close and there's too close. Just kidding, it's not a fault of the film or anything, I just wanted to make sure that I put that on the internet: Danny Boyle shoots a close up of urine traveling through a tube into James Franco's mouth.
I don't think I'll ever look at Scooby Doo again without thinking of a severed arm. That random Scooby Doo stuff was one of the film's many small, but nice touches.
I liked Treat Williams as Ralston's dad in those few short scenes. The man just has a real fatherly look about him.
When Franco rises into frame and yells, "Good morning, everyone!" I laughed aloud. Still laughing after subsequent viewings...I guess it's the crazed joy in his voice and the maniacal look on his face.
I can't recall being happier for a character than I was as Ralston was making his march to the helicopter. His appearance and the music made it an amazing end to an amazing movie.