Danny Boyle’s works have always included some element of Kafka-esque transformative quality and his latest film, 127 Hours
, is certainly no exception. Whether this transformation is forced upon a character (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later
) or chosen by the character (Trainspotting
), the end result is one of some type of liberation or escape. Like the character in Kafka’s story there’s a shedding of the grossness of this world and all its alluring trappings that results in a fullness of being that the characters wouldn’t get to otherwise.
Drawing from Aron Ralston’s autobiographical account the film quickly establishes his happy-go-lucky adventurer character while also nicely acknowledging the fairly well-known outcome of the story. But Boyle, like any good storyteller, knows that the richness lies not just in the climax but also in the journey. James Franco plays Ralston as a good-looking, easy-going, open-road type spirit that, while a bit cocky, also is aware of his surroundings and the opportunities that come his way. He’s not some errant goofball that gets in over his head here. Rather, Boyle focuses intimately in on Franco’s portrayal, of how someone put in a perilous situation - someone who knows what they’re doing - can adapt and ultimately survive.
Despite a few characters he meets during the setup and some additional in flashbacks (including a criminally-underused Treat Williams) Ralston is the sole focus of the story. It’s part of his character, the untethered loner, that gets him into this situation in the first place. When he falls down the narrow canyon and his arm is pinned to the wall but an immovable rock, he’s then forced to face his life choices, some good, some not-so-good. Ralston realizes he’s isolated himself more than he should (amplified by his current predicament) from people he loves and that love him. As he attempts to escape his entrapment and put off his eventual dismemberment he reflects heavily on his life. In one hazy vision he sees himself in the future, with a young son, being happy and enjoying life. He feels some guilt over a lost love, some regret over missed connections (mostly telling people where he would be when the accident happened), but he doesn’t despair. He realizes instead that - like for all of us - these poor choices are also a part of him, that he is not truly lost, that there’s still reason to continue, to survive.
Getting to this point enables him to perform the nearly-unthinkable amputation that frees him from the rock and saves his life. Visually, the journey here gets a very slick and solid treatment that Boyle’s become known for, mixing and fusing the natural with the surreal, the ostentatious with the sublime. It helps keep the story moving, too, so that it doesn’t feel like a one-man, one-act play. The cinematography is gorgeous (I viewed this just in 720p and it was fantastic there) and the Utah country provides a beautiful backdrop for a (mostly) non-menacing Nature element. The amputation scene itself is not as gory as it could have been, the focus instead remaining on Ralston’s face, from the POV of his ever-present camcorder. Boyle doesn’t shy away from the gore here but, rather, lets the events unfold specifically from Ralston’s way of remembering some parts and blacking out others. It’s a very adept story device that way, too.
Franco’s portrayal of Ralston is fantastic as well. While there’s some points of emotional range it’s key to the character that he remain calm and aware, relaxed and thinking. Franco covers all of that, with his quick-and-easy grin present to take much of the emotional edge off the horrible situation his character’s in. His version of Ralston is one that is willing to undergo change, to accept responsibility and yet will not be crushed by it. Strong and defiant yet clearly vulnerable and a bit tender, too. It’s just a very, very good performance here by Franco.
The story seems like it could be a horrible Lifetime channel movie (tagline of, “Staring death in the face, he rose to the unthinkable!”) or, in the hands of another director, it might be more man-versus-evil Nature survival-at-all-costs tale. In 127 Hours
, though, it’s more an examination of humanity under duress, freed from its typical surroundings, left all alone but not hopeless and adaptable.