I'm a huge fan of Danny Boyle's work. He's made films in almost every genre: drama, action, comedy, horror, sci-fi—everything except a pure musical, but music is so important in his films, it's almost redundant.
Music also plays an important part in his latest, 127 Hours, and it's a good thing too—it helps to alleviate the tension. What makes this film so tense right off the bat is that you already know what's going to happen...it's only a matter of time. Everyone knows it's based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young outdoorsman who is trapped by a fallen boulder in a Utah canyon for five days until he makes the desperate decision to amputate his arm in order to free himself.
Boyle's challenge was to make a film whose protagonist is stuck in one place for most of its running time and still manage to make it involving. To that end, he brought along collaborators from his multiple award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, composer A.R.Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, to make it happen. The film even opens like Slumdog, with hyperkinetic, color-skewed shots of people rushing along crowded streets and cheering in stadiums, accompanied by appropriately adrenaline-charged music. This makes for a nice juxtaposition to the empty silence of the Utah wilderness Ralston finds himself helpless and alone in just 20 minutes of screen time later.
Casting is key, and James Franco was a fortuitous choice to play Ralston. He's believably athletic in the role of a thrillseeker, and he's not afraid to look awful or appear foolish. And as depicted in the film, Ralston is something of a dick. He doesn't bother to answer his mother's call when he's getting ready to head out on his trip, and he takes two young women he'd just met on the trail through a hair-raising shortcut in a chasm with seemingly no regard for their safety. Of course, it turns out fine, and the girls love the adventure—that's when his charm shines through.
Franco has shone in supporting roles roles (Milk, the Spiderman series) for years, but he's onscreen for virtually every second of 127 Hours, and he carries the picture beautifully. When Ralston becomes trapped in the canyon, his mind swims with images of regret—leaving his Gatorade sitting in his truck when his thirst becomes acute; realizing he hadn't told anyone where he was going—and Franco really makes us feel his desperation. He also gives us nice glimpses of the character's different personality aspects: methodically examining all the tools at his disposal (including a very dull knife); laughing at the ridiculousness of his plight; and even toying with the idea of masturbating after a particularly vivid reminiscence of his ex-girlfriend, who left him because he was...well, a dick. But he also makes a visual diary of his experience with his video camera, entreating anyone who finds his remains to deliver the tape to his parents.
The film is also packed with "Boyle-isms," and that's a good thing. He's got a way of injecting surreal visuals that are still comprehensible and organic to the story he's telling. 127 Hours has a talk show sequence, recalling a similar scene in Trainspotting, in which Ralston pretends to interview himself and points out all of the mistakes he's made. I'm sure you've seen the trailer—when Franco says, "Oops," it's part of that sequence.
And, like Trainspotting's "filthiest toilet in Scotland" sequence, we get a squirm-inducing "drinking-one's-own-urine" cam. On the other hand there's also a spectacular fantasy segment in which the dangerously dehydrated Ralston fantasizes about a sudden, violent rainstorm that not only gives him mouthfuls of life-giving water but also lifts the boulder up and carries it away from his crushed arm.
As for the big moment—I'm not going to sugar-coat it—it is excruciating and tough to watch, but it's not in the least bit exploitative. As a matter of fact, it's integral to the plot to show how difficult and agonizing the actual act was to perform. And it's necessary to make the scenes that follow more of a relief and imbue them with a real sense of triumph.
I realize I've neglected to mention the other actors, among them Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn and Treat Willliams. They are all fine in their roles, but it's hard to compete against a man and his boulder!
127 Hours is a hard-to-classify film. It's not a date film for sure, and it's definitely difficult to watch, but it also fits neatly into Boyle's oeuvre. He's never been afraid of pushing the envelope, and he doesn't really care if what he makes is a commercial success (although he was well-rewarded with Slumdog). He's determined to tell stories his own way, and for that I commend him.
I also predict the upcoming awards season will involve Franco, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and Robert Duvall in the wonderful Get Low.
As for the rumors that Boyle is going to direct the three-quel to his 28 Days Later, he has confirmed his interest in doing it, but it may not be for a while. Rats.