by James Hansen
The only really positive thing about Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is that the audience gets what it expects. The story of Aron Ralston – the extreme adventurer who amputated his lower right arm to free himself from a boulder which pinned him in Blue John Canyon for 127 hours – was a media circus when the event took place in 2003 and has become a well-known inspirational story. Boyle, long before the success of his supremely overrated Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (2008), defined himself as an “auteur” to the film community by crafting a highly kinetic visual style and spinning it through a variety of genres, most successfully in the druggie epic Trainspotting (1996) and the contemporary zombie spin 28 Days Later (2002).
If Boyle’s best work indicates the ability of his style to cross heterogeneous genres, his worst films loudly illustrate exactly that one style does not not fit all. In these cases, Boyle undermines his own films by confronting his narrative logic, his actors, and his actual story with cut-and-paste stylistic “obsessions” which grate against those former elements. Boyle’s direction (and his entire movie) ends up having nothing to do with the material at hand, but, rather, stands as a useless continuation of expected, inappropriate directorial choices. Case and point: 127 Hours – a story of individual strength amidst extreme isolation and deathly circumstances as directed by a zombie with the Rage virus.
Problems start with the first frames of the film – a tryptych, split-screen of large groups of people, vehicles, and nature displaying Boyle’s “kinetic vibrancy.” The pop soundtrack propels us onto Aron Ralston (James Franco) setting off on his adventure. He screens his mom’s phone call, forgets his Swiss Army knife, and soon enough races through the canyon on his mountain bike. This split-screen method may intend to counterpose Ralston with that contemporary world, but Boyle’s use of it throughout the film destroys its credibility in that regard. That aside, Ralston appears enmeshed in a similar form of movement, a mere extension of the crowded city energy pushed out into nature.
If all this, as well as Ralston’s amusing trail-guide excursion with a couple lost girls, showcases a thematic shift once the boulder traps him, Boyle and company seem either unaware or unwilling to let the challenge of their story – supreme desolation – become a demanding element for the limited audience who wants to see this as a cinematic narrative in the first place. Aside from one nice, if expected, shot of Ralstion crying for help as the camera tracks out and above the vast, confined canyon, Ralston never feels very alone. By repeatedly intercutting scenes of Ralston in alternate locations with masses of people, friends, and family, Boyle removes 127 Hours from the precarious situation at hand and uses it as a pedestal to launch into overwrought flashbacks and sequences which more aptly fit his stylistic choices. In allowing other characters to become a part of the movie during the crucial time span, Boyle lets the audience (and himself) off easy. Ralston appears here, there, and everywhere allowing his position to embody a dramatic one-liner instead of a draining and stirring emotional and temporal experience. Things become so confused in Boyle’s stylistic rampage that a fantastical dream sequence appears as plausible as Ralston’s seemingly unbelievable story.
Franco’s strong performance, slowly replacing his bemused loner attitude with anger, fear, and desperation, signals the emotional swings of his interpersonal journey through the traumatic experience. The dramaturgy, perhaps understandably, occasionally slips into histrionics, but Boyle’s push towards sentimentality thwarts the complex reasoning behind Ralston’s state, and hence his entire story. Much as Franco tries, Boyle’s moves undercut him at every direction.
In the film’s much-anticipated climax, Boyle finally demands that the audience face Ralston’s dire position head on. The amputation sequence has been a lot for the squeamish, and rightfully so. Saw really has nothing on this. But, in waiting for the final moments of this challenging story to make any kind of challenge, it becomes clear that Boyle is wholly unsure about and uncomfortable with the material, its questions, and its lessons. Rather than confront the difficult questions inherent in the actual story, Boyle pushes his own directorial machine buttons instead of anything else. In this way, Ralston becomes just an oddity with which Boyle could make another one of his “inspirational” movies. 127 Hours got what it expected from Boyle – kinetic style, tears, Dido, a children’s choir – but it needed something completely different.