“127 Hours” is a great example of the dramatic film based on the well-known true tale where the success of the execution is not measured in depicting what happened — for we all know that — but, rather, in how. We know the Titanic sank; James Cameron’s task and tack was to drape that inescapable fact in romance and melodrama. We know the Zodiac killer was never caught; David Fincher’s task and tack was to turn that unscratched itch of historical fact into a maddening fever of symbolism and metaphor. And in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” we know that hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) will, on a solo trip through Utah’s Canyonlands, have his arm trapped by a shifting boulder and after more than five days of isolation without food or water, will cut his own arm from his body to get free.
This is not letting the cat out of the bag. Ralston’s story made national news, and he himself is doing publicity for “127 Hours.” Even releasing studio Fox Searchlight doesn’t expect Ralston’s story to surprise you. Danny Boyle’s task and tack is to show us Ralston’s mental process and physical struggles leading up to that decision, and the way the director — best-known for “Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “28 Days Later” — approaches that is sure to be the most-discussed, and most heatedly argued, thing about “127 Hours.” Does Boyle’s fervid, busy direction echo the way Ralston’s mind was free even as his body was trapped? Or is it style over substance, bustling ornamentation ladled over a pure tale that doesn’t need such frippery?
And this question is echoed in the balance Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy also have to take with Ralston’s plight. Too much gore and bloody excess in the tale and it’s like one of the “Saw” films took an Outward Bound course; too easy on the blood and bone and Ralston’s saga is in danger of looking like a walk in the (national) park. Boyle and Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Full Monty”) do their best to convey but never wallow in the tale’s conclusion, aided in no small part by James Franco’s excellent performance as Ralston, a confident, competent, daredevil outdoorsman whose easy, breezy charm has a thin, sharpened edge under it.
When Ralston guides two more casual hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) to his favorite shortcuts and secret places in the park before his mishap, he is both showing them the way and showing off. When Ralston’s plight becomes dire, Franco’s wit and charm turn mordant and grim even as they flash and flare, like a blade turning in the grip of the wielder. And when the time comes for Ralston to do what must be done — even as Boyle pulls tricks like an X-ray shot of a knife hitting bone as a sound-effects sccccrrrrape razes every nerve in your body — it is, nonetheless, Franco who must make you believe it. And he does.
In truth, the gleam on some of Boyle’s inventions — flashbacks, flash-forwards, hallucinations, close-ups and other whiz-bang gimcracks — have dimmed slightly in contemplation after the film. During the film, however, they clutched at me with an iron grip, and considering how many films fumble clumsily at your attention, the attentions of an overly manipulative director may be preferable to no attentions at all. And the end of the film, like those of “Never Let Me Go” and “The Town,” is so overly spelled-out and on the nose that it’s a depressing reminder of how nowadays, great-to-good directors must feel they have to underline and highlight climactic moments out of a fear they’ll have less-than-great audiences.
Unlike the similar-seeming “Into the Wild,” “127 Hours” is ultimately a rewarding film — not only because Ralston’s tale has a happy ending, and not only Ralston’s story hinges on a random twist of fate as opposed to “Into the Wild”‘s slow-motion suicide. The movie works as well as it does when Franco conveys to us how Ralston, immobile, went on a journey through his life and thoughts, through his options and decisions — where he not only came out the other side and survived, but came out the other side deeply changed. “127 Hours” may be occasionally overdirected, but it’s never under-felt. While some of Boyle’s decisions may be questioned in the cool contemplation after the film’s hot immediacy, there’s no doubting he makes the Ralston’s story lively — and that, more importantly, Franco’s work goes a long way toward making Ralston’s story live.