Danny Boyle makes the worst movies that I kinda like.
127 Hours is drawn from the actual experience of Aron Ralston, an outdoors enthusiast who gained fame in 2003 when a solo excursion to Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon went awry, leaving him trapped in a narrow crevasse with his right arm pinned under a rock. After several days, his food and water supplies entirely depleted, Ralston calculated that the only way to escape the situation began with severing the portion of his arm that he’d never be able to wrest free, a grueling process he undertook with the small, dull knife he had with him.
Boyle and his co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who has a shiny Oscar for his work on Slumdog Millionaire) do an admirable job of working within the inherent boundaries of the story. While there’s a simple preamble centered around Aron’s interactions with a couple of hikers he encounters and introduces to his wildly carefree approach to interacting with the stunning landscape, most of the film necessarily takes place with the main character locked into position. The understandable temptation is to find other ways of opening the story up, reasons to carry the camera somewhere else, or bring the variety of the outside world down into the cramped passage. The script opts for these tactics, but it never seems indulgent, or like the filmmakers are laboring to escape from the confines of their story. Instead, it’s done somewhat sparingly, and is almost always a fairly natural extension of what Aron is going through at any given moment, especially once ample time have passed and hallucinations have become a regular part of his day.
The restraint evident in the screenplay is shattered by Boyle’s standard overanxious approach as a director. The film is often a cluttered visual mess layered with vicious aural assaults. It has too many split screens, too many edits, too much music, too much overwhelming technique. It’s the same problem that marred Slumdog Millionaire, and every other Danny Boyle film I’ve ever seen. He seems to operate under the premise that any notion that pops into his head should get due representation onscreen until the whole movie becomes an overburdened kitchen hutch tumbling towards the audience, canisters and plates flung free to randomly pelt their foreheads in advance of a major smashing impact. And yet, within that, there are moments that work beautifully. For example, when Aron considers how easily he could have communicated his destination to his boss, therefore making it far more likely that he’d be found once people determined he was missing. Boyle cuts between Aron in the canyon and a stylized flashback in a way that is disarming, even moving. A different outcome was there for Aron, and Boyle makes it achingly tangible, as it must feel for Aron, replaying all his small mistakes during the torturous span of his solitude.
James Franco is a major contributor to the effectiveness of these moments, and the film is often at its best when Boyle largely gets out of the way and lets the actor shine as he takes on the sort of challenge that those in his line of work spend their entire careers longing for. For most of the film, he’s the only one on camera, wrestling with a whole gamut of complex emotions, largely teasing out his character with small details that emerge in a way that is almost off-handed. Having already established the character’s hubris in the opening scenes, he spends the rest of the time showing how it gradually falls away like shards of a rotting shell. Good as he’s been at times, Franco has never been called upon to deliver a performance this complex, and he succeeds in spellbinding fashion.
It remains a movie that keeps getting in the way of itself, right up to the closing flourishes which are somehow both needlessly showy and emotionally satisfying. Maybe it’s just because it matches so perfectly the flawed film that proceeds it. It’s fitting that the clumsy coexists with the profound, like a crescendo of off-notes in an out-of-tune symphony. It may be hard to take sometimes, but the conviction all the players bring to it inspires its own appreciation.