127 Hours ✮✮✮1/2
ARM & THE MAN
by Glenn Lovell
Short review for a short movie about gravity: OUCH!
Longer review follows — well, at least a review of what I saw when I wasn’t staring at the floor.
I admit it. I’m squeamish. Quite an admission for someone who teaches a course on horror, no? Well, I teach horror but I duck out during the gory bits: Once under the director’s knife is more than enough, thank you very much.
Still, as a longtime Danny Boyle fan, I looked forward to “127 Hours.” Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and “Millions” are among the most energetic and visually inventive films of the last 20 years. You’ll notice I didn’t include “Slumdog Millionaire” here. Frankly, I found it a letdown, a self-conscious fusion of neon and neo-realism that, in the end, proved too precious by half. It felt like Boyle courting the mainstream audience that had dragged its feet on his movies about murder, heroin and zombies.
Everyone’s entitled to a misstep, I reasoned. Boyle’s new film ‒ a 180 after his tale of street gamins and gangsters ‒ sounded like my kind of movie. Stylish. Tightly plotted. Harrowing. I enjoy watching characters demonstrate their resourcefulness, step by methodical step. It appeals to the Thoreau in me.
I wasn’t disappointed. A character study-survival adventure adapted from Aron Ralston’s (unfortunately titled) “Between a Rock and Hard Place,” Boyle’s latest scrupulously observes the unities of time and place while scoring as a nail-biter (no jokes, please) and a tour-de-force for star James Franco, who, it’s been noted earlier, projects some of the same heavy-lidded insouciance of the (forever) young James Dean.
In “127 Hours” ‒ nominated for six Oscars, including those for best actor and best picture ‒ Franco plays Ralston as an extreme athlete who lives for weekend tests of endurance. We meet him preparing for a solo Saturday outing ‒ to a remote canyon outside Moab, Utah. He prepares like a fetishist matador, tabulating his gear for the climb ahead. What he forgets, to his ‒ and our ‒ lasting regret, is something as mundane as a pocketknife.
A lot of movies about climbing ‒ I’m thinking “Touching the Void” and “North Face” ‒ are about men who get into trouble by pushing their luck. They’re skilled but more than a little reckless. This one is different because it takes as its main theme the sin of hubris. Ralston prides himself on not needing anyone ‒ girlfriend, parents, boss ‒ which is why he fails to report in to share his weekend itinerary. So much for the buddy system …
When the world comes crashing down ‒ in the form of a large bolder that pins his right hand to the wall of a ravine — Ralston chides himself for being foolish and sets about, like any serious outdoorsman, figuring triangulations, fixing ropes and pulleys. When the full extent of his dilemma becomes apparent, he does what any of us would do ‒ he tallies his provisions and yells his lungs out. This brings nothing but the faraway screech of a turkey buzzard.
Soon Ralston is talking to himself and considering the nutritional benefits of his own urine. Act 3 offers vivid hallucinations of what might have been had Ralston been a more giving fellow.
And when all else fails? Apply a tourniquet and start whittling on your arm with a dull blade.
Like Hitchcock tackling “Lifeboat,” Boyle approached “127 Hours” as a logistical challenge. How do you hold the viewer for 90 minutes when, for the bulk of that time, your protagonist is trapped in a ravine? Boyle’s solution: An exhilarating prologue that fuses split screen, digital video, and A. R. Rahman’s pulsating score, followed by a short, teasing interlude with a couple of hiker babes. Once pinned down, Boyle relies on flashbacks, fantasy sequences and the kind of psychedelic CG rambles Kubrick would have loved. There is also, of course, the convenient video camera for confessions and goodbyes.
Some of this works, some of it feels like padding. Had Boyle been really gutsy, he would have cut the running length to under an hour. But then, he wouldn’t have had a movie and Hollywood wouldn’t be hailing it as a long shot for best picture. (That Boyle wasn’t nominated may be the Academy’s way of telling him to ease up on the camera tricks.)
Even gutsier was the casting of Franco, who, physically and temperamentally, is the opposite of Matt Damon. Franco exudes cockiness. Which means we’re rooting against the guy almost as much as we’re rooting for him. But this is good. It makes his redemption and shuffle-walk to freedom all the more satisfying.
127 Hours. ✮✮✮1/2 With James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Danny Boyle; scripted by Boyle, Simon Beaufoy from the Aron Ralston book. 94 min. Rated R (for profanity, slight nudity, graphic makeup effects).