127 Hours: Danny Boyle, James Franco and the Little Tool That Could
If you've been living under a smallish, dislodged boulder for the past few months and want to be completely surprised by what happens in Danny Boyle's harrowing, uplifting, abusive, exhilarating, calculating and exceedingly clever 127 Hours, stop reading now. I mean it. Because you won't want to know that in 127 Hours James Franco, as real-life mountain climber Aron Ralston, cuts his own arm off with a -- OK, that I'm not going to tell you, because I just don't want to spoil the effect of seeing this unassuming if somewhat diabolical-looking implement for the first time.
The press and industry screening for 127 Hours started some 90 minutes late, because of a last-minute venue switcheroo caused by technical difficulties at another screening. Standing in a long, surly line for an hour and a half is no journalist or critic's idea of fun, particularly since many of us come here with a long list of specific movies we need to cover; even a delay of a few minutes can sometimes screw up your whole day. But everyone seemed appeased when, after we'd finally settled into the theater, Boyle himself appeared to explain and apologize. He also said he was looking forward to reading all our "waiting on line for 127 hours" jokes, an impish bit of thunder-stealing which probably caused at least a few deflated scribes to scratch out several lines in their notebooks.
Boyle's brief appearance was a surprise -- no audience expects a big-name director to pop up and apologize for an inconvenience that's hardly his fault -- and it was also an impressive feat of salesmanship. At that point, I just couldn't wait to watch Franco saw off his arm with a whatsit. Bring it on!
But just a third of the way into the movie's trim 90-odd minutes, I started to have second thoughts. What did Boyle think he was doing? He hints and teases at what's coming, sometimes unconscionably, and there are moments where Aron's semi-hallucinatory suffering is almost unbearable to watch. Aron is a hotshot rock climber who's decided to explore a very narrow crevice in the face of the earth -- you know, just for fun. As he's confidently inching his way along, he slips and loses his footing, dropping further into the crevice; a boulder loosens and tumbled down after him, wedging his arm against a wall of rock. Unable to budge either bolder or arm, he calmly lays out every item in his pack -- including a camcorder, a few ropes and carabiners, even a small stack of credit cards -- and thinks about which tool he might use to help him get out of this scrape.
The slightly unconscionable angle of 127 Hours is that we're all just sitting there, waiting for the big, horrific payoff, and Boyle teases us perhaps a bit too mischievously. But the movie's saving grace -- and the thing that makes it an intriguing piece of filmmaking instead of just a work of exploitation -- is that Boyle doesn't present Aron's predicament as a glum, existential downer. The movie has none of the phony philosophic posturing of, say, Into the Wild. Instead, Aron faces this peculiar challenge with a sense of humor and an admirable degree of common sense. He uses his camcorder as both a tool for documentation and a trusted friend, to whom he can confide what may be his final thoughts (including what a numskull he was to take off on this exploratory jaunt without telling anyone where he was going). Much of 127 Hours consists of flashbacks that tell us something about Aron's life (not to mention his laid-back, self-deprecating sense of humor). Boyle fills in all the requisite details using jazzy triple split-screen effects and Trainspotting-style fantasy shots of the interiors of veins or wounds -- that sort of thing. Attention is lavished on all sorts of details, often in extreme close-up -- the way, for instance, Aron removes his contact lenses, which have begun to stick to his eyeballs, rewetting them in his mouth before replacing them. That's a contact-lens wearing "don't" that plenty of us have been guilty of, in far less dire circumstances.
I felt a little beat up during the course of 127 Hours; the picture is something of an endurance test, and Boyle knows it -- there's an element of "Can you take it?" machismo at work here. (The picture was adapted by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy from Ralston's book, A Rock and a Hard Place.) But Boyle is smart enough to know that even if the climactic arm-sawing sequence is the big payoff here, it's hardly the heart of the movie. That honor goes to the preternaturally casual Franco, who makes it all cool. He anchors the picture beautifully with his no-worries riffing, his "Gosh, I'd kinda like to get out of here alive" patter. I didn't emerge from 127 Hours feeling angry and overly manipulated, as I feared I might. And that, I think, is Boyle's greatest feat of unmanipulative manipulation.