Lean, efficient, despairing, thrilling and ultimately life affirming, “127 Hours” might just be the film Danny Boyle has been waiting to make for his entire career. Riding into TIFF on an incredible wave of buzz, Boyle takes the true life story of Aron Ralston‘s unbelievable and wrenching tale of survival and alchemically turns it into a wide reaching, highly approachable and relentlessly entertaining film.
The premise is simple, and for anyone even remotely following the project, widely known. In 2003 Aron Ralston (James Franco) fell into a crevice while canyoneering in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, with his arm trapped under a boulder. He tries desperately to chip away at the rock using a scissor/knife tool he has; creates a pulley system using his ropes to try and lift the boulder off before he faces the hard reality that — with no one aware of where he is — he will need to cut his own arm off in order to get out of there and have a chance to save his life. And he does. Yes, it’s a one setting story with a “happy” ending most audiences will know upon buying tickets, but Boyle utilizes a number of devices that open up the story narratively and thematically while adding dramatic tension to a situation that is already nerve-wrackingly fraught.
Working with two cinematographers, Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle spends the opening ten or so pre-title minutes with Ralston running wild through the canyons and vast space of Utah. Joined by two fellow outdoorswomen (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn who get most of their screentime in this opening segment), they climb, tumble and swim in the remote and utterly gorgeous outdoors. With hands running against canyon walls aged by eons of wind and rain, with no buildings or people for miles and a seemingly endless sky, Boyle gives viewers a chance to be awed and humbled at the beauty and size of the land; we immediately get a sense of what makes canyoneering somewhat of a drug for Ralston and what pushes him to explore it in all its glory.
Among the other tools in Boyle’s storytelling arsenal is switching between third and first person point-of-view; we are plunged directly in what Ralston senses and feels. But most effective of all is the video diary that Ralston keeps in preparation for his death. Sensing his predicament, he begins to keep a log of his situation, says goodbye to his parents and siblings and keeps his sanity intact by speaking directly to the camera. And Boyle uses these installments to flashback to memories, moments and even fantasies in Ralston’s life. But these are brief. As his health and mental stability diminish, these moments are shortened and quickly cut as we’re brought rushing back to the reality of the situation. In one particularly notable sequence, Boyle juggles with a screen split in three with reality, the present and fantasy all overlapping; it’s a great feat made even more admirable in that none of this ever feels gimmicky or forced. Credit is surely due to editor Jon Harris who cut and threads this material together with ease, with a pace that, from the first frame, is utterly breathless; the film’s 90-odd minutes simply race by.
But don’t think for a second that Boyle’s flashy style is a mask for the harrowing moment we all know is coming. When the decision arrives for Ralston to break his arm in two places, and then use his dull tiny knife to hack away at muscle, sinew and tendon to sever the lower part off, it is every bit as graphic and stomach-churning as it deserves. With flashes of light, bursts of sound, we palpably feel every snip, cut and snap as Ralston grinds through his arm and when the job is done and he stumbles backward and stares, delirious and desperate, at the truly bizarre sight of a boulder pinning the remaining stump of his arm to the canyon wall, the audience is just as stunned and silent as he is.
At this point the question is not if “127 Hours” will be nominated for an Oscar but how many. Giving easily the best performance of his career, James Franco is a lock for a nomination and easily a favorite to win it all. His transformation from confident charmer in the early frames, to emotions of shock, anger, disbelief and heartbreak that course through him during the hours he spends trapped is remarkable. Franco has never been more alive as an actor than he is here. As we’ve already made the case, Boyle should be an easy nod for Best Director while we’ll wait for the Academy to figure out if both cinematographers can share a nomination. A.R. Rahman‘s buoyant and exciting score should undoubtedly bring him another nomination and with all these in the running, Best Picture is a no-brainer. Consider one spot already taken with nine more spots to be fought for.
Press and industry screenings at festivals are hard to assess sometimes. Cynicism is often easy and the wear and tear of running around a festival can often make audiences impatient and hard to impress. Our screening faced a nearly two hour delay causing pre-screening grumbling and consternation, but as the credits rolled not only did the film get rare applause (usually the end of a film will find a sea of smartphones being turned on as people quickly head to the exits), there were more than a few eyes being dried. “127 Hours” is poised to be another crowd pleasing hit for Danny Boyle and a film that will be tough to beat this awards season. But besides the accolades from press, and pieces of metal it will collect, director Danny Boyle finds his craft honed to a perfect pitch. Deeply humane, rawly felt and astonishingly executed “127 Hours” is one of the best films of year. [A]