Friday, 7 January 2011

'127 Hours' review:

In theory Danny Boyle might just be the perfect choice of director to make a mainstream film about the graphic, but nevertheless quite boring, story of Aron Ralston - a climber who got trapped in a rocky crevice in an isolated part of Utah in 2003 and only escaped by severing his right arm below the elbow. I say boring because although Ralston had to hack through his own flesh and bone with a blunt knife before he was free, he spent five days prior to that sitting in the dark, talking to his video camera and drinking his own urine. However, in Boyle's hands you know that the story will be punctuated by his trademark blend of hyperactive editing and energetic music, with even the smallest moments - such as taking a sip of water - afforded flashy, hi-octane treatment with bravura use of camera.

This ceaseless, self-consciously hip treatment is exactly what the Academy Award winning director of 'Slumdog Millionaire' has brought to the table in his film '127 Hours', which stars James Franco as Ralston and is co-written with regular partner Simon Beaufoy. It begins with a fast-paced, split screen montage of archive footage showing people in big social groups (on the stock market floor; or at a sporting event) making elaborate use of their arms. Boyle, never one for subtlety, is ramming home the point that we use our arms a lot in communication with others. By going it alone and neglecting his friends and family (he doesn't return their calls or tell them where he is canyoneering) Ralston will loose one of these important social instruments, though ironically he will emerge a better, more socially minded individual as a result. Ralston might spend most of the film trapped in one tight space, but he does at least venture on an emotional journey. As every poster for the film tells us, this a "triumphant true story": something intended to be every bit as "feelgood" and "heartwarming" as 'Slumdog'. It's a motivational tale about survival and how we, like Ralston, can turn great adversity into a positive life-changing experience.

That is the theory anyway. Instead, for me at least, Boyle's heavy-handed and fidgety style of storytelling detracts from the humanity of the piece, as he shifts uneasily from crisp digital landscape photography, to grainy handheld shots, to cameras showing the POV of a hand or the inside of a drinking straw. Sometimes it's lo-fi and gritty and sometimes it feels like an expensive Michael Bay directed music video. It is the same restlessness and tacky excess that characterises the director's entire filmography, though with it's hallucinations and dream sequences, '127 Hours' also features the surreal touches and moments of genuine invention as seen in his best work: 'Shallow Grave' and 'Trainspotting' (and for me 'A Life Less Ordinary'). Yet these flourishes now feel overwrought and verge on self-parody. It also doesn't help that the self-indulgent form and fast-cutting of Boyle's film is consistently set to the most horrible of musical selections.

The cumulative effect of the distracting editing and the over-the-top soundtrack is that the film's most pivotal, climactic and talked about sequence - that of the amputation - is almost funny rather than horrific. I'm quite squeamish and I can't watch so-called "torture porn" films, so I was expecting to have to resist the urge to cover my eyes during the final moments only to be underwhelmed. It's no fault of the special effects and make-up department. The wound looks real (at least to someone like me lacking any frame of reference) but it is badly filmed. Perhaps the moment wasn't supported by the obvious and cheesy writing that preceded it, which had already dented my enthusiasm for the movie by that point. "You're going to be lonely" a former girlfriend flat-out tells the climber in a flashback (no need to think about what you're seeing for yourself). In another scene the same love interest lays a hand on Franco's chest and asks all-too earnestly "how do I get in here? What is the combination?" "If I told you I'd have to kill you" he replies predictably. Through those scenes I was left saying under my breath "go on: lop off the arm already and end this film."

'127 Hours' is at its most watchable and alive when Franco "does a Gollum" and videos himself playing both sides of a question and answer session. James Franco is a good choice to play this role and is rapidly establishing himself as one of the more courageous and interesting male leads around. He just about holds your attention during most of this one-man show with a performance that combines playful humour with despair and anguish. He is also a convincing physical performer as he scales the canyons before he is involuntarily indisposed. It is to the film's detriment that Boyle's busy audio-visual style prevents any moments of sincere and quiet introspection for Franco's character.

It is at least refreshing to see that Franco's Ralston doesn't start off the film with any sort of major personality defect - unless you take ignoring one answer phone message (left as he's preparing to leave the house) as shorthand that he's not nice enough to his dear old mum. He seems a likable if slightly cocky guy, described by two girls he meets before the accident as "fun". And he is fun: showing the lost pair which way to go and taking them to a a beautiful subterranean swimming pool where they all lark about for a bit. He is charismatic and he seems driven by a love of the outdoors rather than a selfish (and self-destructive) desire to be left alone. The character change he undergoes is more the organic and relatable response to a near death experience (to cherish your loved ones and take nothing for granted) than the contrivance of the needs of film structure as explained so well by Brian Cox in 'Adaptation'.

I will say that Ralston's real-life experience is genuinely incredible. No matter what was at stake, I'm not sure I could saw though my arm without anesthetic and with only a crummy little penknife and a makeshift tourniquet at my disposal. It is a testament to the guy that he managed to do that rather than passing out and dying of dehydration alone in that deserted rock face. It was never something I needed to see on film however and Boyle's loud, chaotic telling of it has failed to convince me otherwise. Maybe a smaller, more intimate and disciplined film would have worked better for me, though I can see that many will find Boyle's more excitable approach compliments its thrill-seeking central character.

One small caveat to end this review would be that in a fairly empty screening there were two or three people who applauded as the credits rolled. I also saw that many people were more effected by the amputation scene than I was, covering their eyes and so on. I haven't enjoyed any of Danny Boyle's films of the last ten years either. So if you found 'Slumdog Millionaire' to be as brilliant as many film critics (and indeed the Oscar voters) did, then maybe there is something for you in '127 Hours'. There just wasn't anything in it for me besides a winning central performance and a couple of breathtaking shots of the Utah landscape.

'127 Hours' is out now in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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