Danny Boyle is not a thinking man’s director. This is not to say that Boyle hasn’t made great films, nor that his films aren’t thought-provoking – he has (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and they often are. It’s just that a “thinking man’s director” might give viewers at least a moment or two to actually think during a film. Boyle’s films are instead cokehead surges of energy that continually slap viewers in the face, both in a figurative emotional sense and in a more literal sense – Boyle probably uses startling bursts of sound and whiplash-inducing shock cuts more than any other director not working in the horror genre.
Sensation and momentum are Boyle’s greatest strengths; stillness and subtlety are his greatest weaknesses. The most comical example of the latter can be seen in his science-fiction epic Sunshine, where a quiet subtext about the conflict between science and religion in the film’s beginning is later literalized as a religious ghost-slasher who hacks apart scientists with a scalpel. Given Boyle’s propensity for propulsion, 127 Hours may initially seem like an admirable example of a director stepping outside of his comfort zone. The titular period that the film covers was mainly a time of stasis – the film tells the true story of Aron Ralston, an outdoorsman who was trapped in a canyon by a boulder that pinned down his arm and was forced into drastic (and oh-so-gory) measures to survive. Could this plot-based confinement finally force Danny Boyle to slow down?
Well, no. 127 Hours probably is Boyle’s most subdued film, but it is also a film replete with trisected split screens, detailed hallucinations involving Scooby-Doo, and a camera that within seconds transitions between satellite’s-eye views and a shot from the inside of a water bottle. Boyle has adapted the material to fit his style more than he has adapted his style to fit the material, and the result is a film that makes the difficult cinematic subject of motionless isolation tremendously entertaining, but also seems a bit too shallow for an experience with such monumental stakes.
127 Hours expands Ralston’s story into feature-length by making the movie as much about the young survivor’s mental struggle as it is about the physical ordeal. Ralston, as played by James Franco, is the cockiest of loners, an adventurer who scoffs at the idea of relying on others (and accordingly tells no one where he’s going on that fateful day) and only rethinks his ways because of the weight of that rock. Casting Franco as Ralston was a master stroke for Boyle. Franco has leading-man looks and loose-limbed charisma, but he still has an abiding weirdness and willfulness both on-screen and in real life (this is the actor who decided to spend a stint acting on “General Hospital” as a piece of performance art). His oddball uniqueness matches Ralston’s own self-isolating eccentricity as tightly as a tourniquet, and Franco holds the screen quite ably over the course of his challenging role – he sells the realistic moments of emotional/physical pain and agony as well as he does the fanciful flights of hallucination (the film’s peak might be a schizoid Smeagol-Gollum-esque conversation where Ralston imagines himself as a talk show host mocking the real-life Ralston).
But Boyle fails to wring any real profundity out of Ralston’s story. In the film’s climax, he plays Ralston’s realization about people needing people like a holy epiphany, complete with a cathedral-worthy Sigur Ros song, but the moment feels less like the hard-won result of soul-searching and more like a glaring statement of the obvious. The pat note in the epilogue that Ralston now always leaves a note saying where he’s going just seems way too easy.
What 127 Hours mainly has going for it is intensity of sensation, which is certainly nothing to shake a limb at. You’re not likely to experience a cinematic moment this year more visceral than when Ralston arms himself with a dull blade and gets to the gruesome, life-saving task at hand. And all of Boyle’s technical grandstanding is undeniably impressive, as is A.R. Rahman’s score – the Indian composer won an Oscar for his Slumdog Millionaire score, and his thrilling hip-hop/rock/folk-influenced work here seems like a foreigner’s attempt to encapsulate the sum of American musical genres into a single soundtrack. But the movie just isn’t deep enough to really get under your skin – once the shock of its visceral sensation fades, not much remains. For a movie about a guy who was forced to saw off his own arm, 127 Hours doesn’t really leave much of a mark.
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