Those multi-tools sure do come in handy, don’t they? Okay, I swear that’s my last hand-related pun in reviewing Danny Boyle’s newest film 127 Hours . Boyle, the genius director who has brought us films as diverse as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and 2008’s hugely popular Slumdog Millionaire , has again changed genres like some people change their shirts. This time, he’s appealing to the North Face quarter-zip microfleece crowd, taking on Aron Ralston’s 2004 autobiography "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," the quintessential modern tale of survival — the real-life account of an adventurer who is forced to amputate his own arm after becoming trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon.
127 Hours begins in typical Danny Boyle fashion, with a three-way split screen of maddening crowds set to Free Blood’s rhythmic and repetitive “Never Hear Surf Music Again.” Next we meet Ralston, played by James Franco ( Spider-Man , “General Hospital”), who is packing for a trip to Canyonlands, Utah. His mother calls, but he doesn’t bother answering. Instead, he drives all night, camps and awakes the next morning ready to explore Bluejohn Canyon.
After a chance encounter with a couple of like-minded hikers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), Ralston separates from them and gleefully runs through the smooth-walled maze of canyons, running his soon-to-be-crushed hand over the nearly flawless sandstone. What follows is like something from a Jack London novel. While descending into a slot canyon, Ralston dislodges a large boulder, which falls and pins his arm. Ralston, in his selfish rush, hasn’t told anyone where he was going.
Franco portrays Ralston as a man constantly in motion, the blur of a high-speed life providing a respite from his flawed interpersonal relationships. When his hand is trapped, Ralston is forced to examine his life decisions. Franco does a brilliant job depicting his character’s perseverance while physically wilting as the hours accumulate.
Because Ralston’s journey is largely internal, a documentary-style treatment would’ve bored the audience to tears. Instead, Boyle consistently engages the audience with highly stylized storytelling. The main character’s increasingly deranged state of mind allows Boyle to visually create a somber, moody delirium — one that sets the stage for his character’s epiphany. Boyle includes healthy doses of effects, strange camera angles (like from inside Ralston’s Nalgene bottle or his Camelbak) and split screens. In particular, Boyle’s use of music adds tension to a movie in which the entire audience walks in knowing what’s going to happen. The soundtrack again features A.R. Rahman (who won an Academy Award for his work on Slumdog Millionaire ), as well as a sprinkling of music by Sigur Rós, Chopin and Dido.
Somehow the film’s bloody climax doesn’t seem excessive, although it was enough to cause a woman to collapse facedown outside of the theater during my screening, so the faint of heart (or those prone to fainting) should be warned. Visually and aurally engaging, 127 Hours is much more than the “guy that cut his arm off” movie. It’s another great movie from a modern master.