Director Danny Boyle’s default mode is exuberance. An immensely talented craftsman with an eye for vivid colors and peppy music cues, Boyle’s movies just can’t sit still, even when they probably should. As fine a film as it was, his Trainspotting presented the sedentary lives of heroin addicts with the incongruously frenzied energy of a coke binge. 28 Days Later even sped up zombies, with the walking dead sprinting across the screen. Danny Boyle pictures are always entertaining, yet curiously hollow—there’s little time for thematic contemplation or character development in these headlong rushes. I don’t think I’m alone in enjoying the heck out of Slumdog Millionaire, then almost immediately forgetting that I ever even saw it.
Aron Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, must have presented an irresistible challenge to the manic filmmaker. As you might recall from news stories at the time, in 2003 Ralston was on a solo mountain climbing expedition in Utah’s Blue John Canyon when he fell and got stuck in a narrow crevasse, his right arm pinned by a boulder. With no food, precious little water, and not a soul for hundreds of miles, Ralston was trapped for five days, eventually freeing himself by sawing off his arm with the dull blade of a cheap multipurpose tool. It’s a grim survival tale—yet another reminder of why I seldom go outdoors. Boyle, with adaptation help from Slumdog co-writer Simon Beaufoy, attacks it with his usual hyperkinetic brio. The opening of 127 Hours is perilously close to a Mountain Dew commercial, with James Franco in full-on swagger mode as Ralston, barreling across the ravishing landscapes on his bike so quickly that it’s a wonder any of the visuals even have time to register. He briefly flirts with two fetching young hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) but before long scuttles off on his way solo. Franco plays Ralston with a goofball charm that’s ever-so-slightly disconnected—even in the company of others, part of him seems to be off somewhere on his own.
So what’s a director with ants in his pants to do when his subject is rendered immobile? Ralston’s predicament doesn’t slow Boyle down in the slightest. The camera is here, there and everywhere in that crevasse, even zipping up the nozzle of Ralston’s water bottle for no apparent reason than to continue the full-on sensory overload. At first Ralston addresses the dilemma as a simple physics problem, nothing that a couple of pulleys and fulcrums can’t fix. But it turns out that all his savvy outdoorsman know-how and can-do spirit don’t add up to much when your arm’s crushed under a giant friggin’ rock. Things turn desperate, and Boyle heads inward.
127 Hours becomes a hallucinatory tour through Ralston’s inner life, with the filmmaker throwing so much junk at the screen I thought I saw a kitchen sink in there somewhere. We see random appearances of his forlorn parents, visions of an ex-girlfriend and, in one genuinely inspired sequence, Franco explains the situation to his video camera as if hosting a daytime talk show. There’s no shortage of “stuff” going on in 127 Hours, but very little of it leaves a lasting impression.
For starters, Ralston is just not that interesting. Sure, Franco is a charismatic guy and you could certainly pick worse actors to get stuck in a ravine with for five days, but there’s not a lot of internal conflict going on here. Ralston feels guilty because he doesn’t call his mother often enough, which is hardly the stuff of searing character studies. In fact, it’s pretty banal. There’s elliptical mention of a girlfriend that he may have treated badly, but brief flashbacks to their breakup seem to have been staged at an NBA game mostly so Boyle’s camera can gallivant around the arena.
As usual, cinematographer Antony Dod Mantle (with an assist from Enrique Chediak) pushes the boundaries of digital video, with the colors cranked up to the point of distortion. Yet it’s all so busy, so self-consciously virtuosic, that the movie undercuts its own premise. Despite a commendable ick factor during the self-mutilation, there’s no real sense of catharsis when Ralston frees himself, probably because the movie is so cluttered that we never truly feel like we’ve been trapped. These five days fly by awfully quickly.
A story like this requires patience. It’s easy to imagine Werner Herzog turning it into a haunting meditation on nature’s cruel indifference. Perhaps Gus Van Sant, in hypnotic Gerry -mode, would have made us feel Ralston’s profound isolation. Boyle is just too revved up a showman to allow us any connection with the horror. Much like Slumdog, it’s way more interested in pleasing the crowd than the material warrants. Despite chronicling a severe existential crisis, 127 Hours ends with a soaring crescendo of Sigur Ros music and the message to call your mother once in awhile.
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco
Running time: 94 minutes