2010 may be the year of the films about people in tight places - literally. We've had "Frozen," about three skiers trapped on a ski lift, "Buried," which stuck poor Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for the entire movie, and now James Franco gets his arm pinned under a rock for "127 Hours." How do you make feature length films about dilemmas like this? "Frozen" never strayed far from its three protagonists and the winter landscape. "Buried" pulled off the gimmick of never leaving the confines of the coffin. As for "127 Hours," director Danny Boyle took a different approach.
"127 Hours" is based on the real-life experience of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a canyon in the remote Utah desert, after a boulder came down on him. Ralston was an experienced climber and had enough gear to survive for several days, but the odds were against him. He hadn't told anyone where he was going, his supplies were limited, and he finally had to do the unthinkable in order to make his escape. If you don't know the particulars, I won't provide spoilers, except to say that what we see of the act in question really isn't as graphic or gruesome as some of the press has made it out to be. In fact, the movie is surprisingly short on terror or horror or anything of the sort. Rather, it keeps its focus on the internal thoughts of Ralston, who just isn't the type to lose his head in a bad situation.
The opening sequence sees Ralston playing guide to a pair of lost hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who view his daredevil extreme sporting exuberance with some incredulity at first, but are quickly won over. He wins the audience over pretty quickly too. Ralston's personality is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. He's smart, likable, charismatic, funny, and down-to-earth in the best way. He spends those 127 hours in the canyon mounting multiple battles of man vs. rock and then man vs. self, and doing his best to stay upbeat in the pauses between. It may seem a gimmicky conceit that Ralston makes videos to his parents while he's trapped, sometimes narrating new developments to the camcorder like a game show host, except that this is what the real Aron Ralston actually did. And thanks to James Franco, at his most genial and scruffy, we believe it. Franco does a great job of embodying so much of the ordinary and extraordinary in the same person. He keeps Aron Ralston relentlessly alive and immediate, and it's impossible not to root for his escape. I think it's the best performance we've seen from him so far, and I'm glad he's been getting so much attention for it.
But as much as Franco fills the screen, this is Danny Boyle's movie. The fact that his hero is stuck in a narrow canyon for the bulk of the running time doesn't stop him from sending the camera off in a hundred different directions, often at breakneck speeds. As Aron fantasizes about an ex-girlfriend, or being at a party he was invited to, or a bottle of soda sitting in his car on the other side of the desert, the camera travels with him. At one point he dreams about a sudden rainstorm turning the canyon into a raging river, submerging him in water. The visuals are so tactile, you'll find yourself holding your breath. And because this is Danny Boyle, there's rarely anything slow or languid or dreamy about these fantasies. Smash cuts and split screens abound. This is "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" on crack.
Except, "127 Hours" has a happy ending. Sure, Aron Ralston is never going to be the same after his ordeal, but there is an unmistakable sense of life-affirming triumph at the finale of the film, and it's such a great, unexpected high. The film is pretty intense, and I'm not sure I'd sit through it again in a hurry, but it would be worth it for the euphoria that ending. After the dark, gut-wrenching intensity of "Frozen" and "Buried," I wasn't looking forward to "127 Hours" at all, but Danny Boyle and James Franco surprised me. They actually turned a wilderness survival picture into a feel-good film, and a damn fine one at that.
And I'm so glad Boyle decided to work with Indian composer A.R. Rahman again. This was one of the best scores I've heard all year.