127 hours is ultimately a success, but I can’t help feeling that Danny Boyle missed a trick.
Before we get to any problems though, it’s only appropriate to start by mentioning the performance of James Franco who is superb as the extrovert and reckless thrill-seeker Aaron Ralston. From the outset he is portrayed as a bouncing ball of energy, an irritating yet strangely likable and infectious character. The beautifully shot opening scenes follow Ralston as he cycles, runs and jumps through the stunning Blue John Canyon in Utah. These action scenes combined with the rhythmic pulsating music make for an appropriately breathless 15 minutes. But then things start to go wrong both for the character and to an extent, the film itself.
As Ralston attempts to lower himself into a canyon, he brings a boulder down with him, trapping him as it lands on his arm. As the dust settles and the film title finally appears on screen, there’s a sense that this is where the story really begins, from now on it’s just Franco, his belongings and the canyon…. Or so we think. Unfortunately after a couple of effective scenes in which we see Ralston gradually realise the gravity of the situation, and make initial attempts to dislodge the boulder using brute force, things start to get a little too messy.
Boyle obviously realised that he had to make the canyon scenes watchable, cinematic and entertaining but it seems he just went too far, at the expense of realism and proper intensity. The almost constant blaring music, hallucinations, quirky camera angles, voices and cuts made it seem anything but a lonely and quiet experience. You never really get a sense of what the reality must have been like, at no point does it feel claustrophobic and there’s no sense of how long each day must have felt with the endless hours of loneliness and silence, you are constantly being taken out of the moment. It just would’ve taken a couple of scenes, a few minutes here and there to let the film breathe, to slow it down and quieten the mood for us to see the reality and create a more rounded, intense and gritty experience. In the end it’s the simpler and quieter canyon scenes that are the more effective. When Franco speaks directly into the video camera the gravity of the situation immediately becomes more apparent and the emotions more tangible. The gameshow scene in particular was heart-breaking. Unfortunately these scenes were too few and far between, the balance just wasn’t there.
Franco’s performance though is strong enough to carry the film through this not entirely satisfying middle section. His portrayal of a character reduced from a cocky, care-free thrill seeker to a helpless, guilt-ridden and vulnerable individual is hugely impressive and as the film moves into its final act, things really pick-up.
The last 25 minutes are extraordinary, subjecting the audience to an exhausting range of emotions. For ‘that scene’ Boyle manages to find the perfect balance. It’s tough to watch, it has to be, the greatest crime would have been to trivialise the event, but it’s watchable and there’s no escape. Those covering their eyes are subjected to a barrage of equally traumatic noises. If anything the scene perhaps isn’t long enough, it can’t have been a quick process. The excruciating amputation scene is followed by a confusing mix of heartbreak, relief and joy in the moments that directly follow it. Boyle then manages to inject a little more tension as Ralston abseils down one last hurdle, before the totally euphoric last five minutes. Mid-way through the film I honestly wasn’t sure how invested I was in the character. It therefore came as a bit of a shock that the final few minutes made me more emotional than I’ve ever been during a film before. It’s a powerful and hugely uplifting finale…. I must have been more invested in it all than I realised.
Ultimately 127 hours is a very good film and yet another success for Danny Boyle, I can’t wait to see it again. It’s a shame though that this isn’t the truly great film it could have been. Boyle’s trademark visuals and style just didn’t seem to fit the situation at hand in the middle part of the film.