Danny Boyle, coming off the back of one of the most successful films of the last decade, decided to complete a project he was really passionate about, knowing that whatever the result, the truckload of money and awards garnered by Slumdog Millionaire would cushion any possible fall he could suffer. The fact that Boyle’s new film has made a significant impact on the box office market is perhaps something of a surprise – even to the director himself – but makes two things abundantly clear: number one, Boyle’s name is now synonymous with quality in the minds of many; number two, human character study films are not things of the past.
The ‘project’ in question is 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston, an adventurous American solo-hike enthusiast who trekked out into the Utah wilderness, only to be punished by it. While fighting through the extremely remote Blue John Canyon, Ralston – played by James Franco – slips, and his right arm is trapped by a rock against the walls of a narrow opening, leaving him stranded with only limited supplies and his camcorder for company. Finding the rock immovable, Ralston had to make a choice: either stay there and face certain death, or try to amputate his arm and escape. Seeing as how the film is based on Ralston’s autobiographical book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the young hiker elected to take option B, and cut off his own arm to try and get away.
With a story this incredible, Boyle has a tough task on his hands to make it interesting. As with any film based on actual events, not to mention such well-documented ones, it’s very difficult to build tension or suspense: as was stated at the time of the classic Titanic example, “WE KNOW THE BOAT’S GOING TO SINK!” Making an audience engage with a story which they know the conclusion of is extremely difficult work, and Ralston’s tale is so miraculous that keeping the movie grounded in real life is of the utmost importance. Depicting someone amputating their arm isn’t painful to watch in gore-sploitation films like the Saw franchise, but when a film’s central (and only) character does it, the emotional impact heightens the audience’s feelings of empathy, rather than those of revulsion.
Herein lies the reason that 127 Hours is such a fantastic film: it’s primarily a character study. Franco’s Ralston is an amiable, carefree young man in the film’s opening sequences, and although he’s also equipped with the kind of breezy cockiness some may find grating, we quickly realise that self-confidence is as essential as climbing rope when there’s no-one else to rely on. Franco’s performance, so much the film’s fulcrum and core, is astonishing, and worthy of any award. Balancing Ralston’s boisterous nature with the beleaguering despair of his situation, there is no emotional stone left unturned, no dark corner unvisited. As the film’s 95 minutes progress, Franco seamlessly moves from joviality to the absolute nadirs of depression and back again, yet never overplays his emotions nor embellishes the role. The key to his performance, as it is to Boyle’s camera, is to stay firmly rooted in the real world, and Franco inhabits a human being, not a character: in what could so easily be an egotistical one man show, Franco is considered, poised and genuinely marvellous.
Indeed, it’s Boyle’s sometimes kinetic, sometimes painfully still camerawork which is really the actor opposite Franco. While the leading man’s performance dominates proceedings, Boyle’s direction is just as brilliant, from epic sweeping shots showing the sheer isolation Ralston is facing to a deftly handled crowd scene at a basketball game. The latter is a wonderfully worked sequence, capturing the raucous atmosphere of live sports while also intimately depicting a painful breakup from Ralston’s past.
Of course, the scene which everyone will no doubt discuss in car parks and bars afterward is the climactic sequence in which Ralston amputates his own arm. The film, a 15-certificate in the UK, is pretty mild up until this point, but the camera refuses to flinch during this exceptionally painful scene, showing a good deal of gory detail, and Boyle conveys through both occasional, savage movement and the expertly designed score –which really stands out in these final stages – the sheer agony which Ralston must endure to earn his freedom. The audible gritting of teeth can be expected here, but as stated above, it’s the superb level of character development which makes the scene all the more painful: Aron’s speeches to his camcorder blaming himself for his predicament really hit home with full force during the final act.
127 Hours is terrific. Far exceeding any expectations I had entering the movie theatre, it manages to tell the incredible story of a unique individual without embellishing the tale or canonising its protagonist. Films dealing with one character generally openly bait Oscars – usually in overwrought scenes of mental breakdown – but this, despite the hype, is brilliant through its understatement.
Verdict: A superb movie which manages to be both sombre and uplifting, Boyle’s film moves and engrosses without resorting to saccharine biopic clichés or overly-stylised egotism, largely thanks to a magnetic performance by James Franco. It may be a story about one man in an extraordinary situation, but 127 Hours’ strength is in its identifiability: we might never have to cut our arm off, but we’ve all borne some of the emotional tribulations Aron Ralston endures. A marvellous film.