Director Danny Boyle is not known for “stillness” and “solitude.”
His films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting” are narrated with mesmerizing impatience, constantly shifting the visuals through schizophrenic montages, cross-cuts, color filters and grainy slow-motion. He directs his films with flash and panache, hustle and bustle.
So when telling the story of a guy stuck in a canyon for five days, the question becomes, how does Boyle’s flair for movement handle a story without any?
“127 Hours” tells the true story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), who in 2003 amputated his arm to free himself from a boulder under which he spent five days.
While there’s not a whole lot of action in the traditional sense, Boyle succeeds in extracting ninety minutes of enchanting emotional deterioration before the inevitable and well-documented conclusion. It’s likely the majority of the audience knows what’s coming, so the real climax happens in Aron’s downfall.
In the early minutes, we’re introduced to Aron as he hikes, bikes and climbs around the expansive Bluejohn Canyon in Utah, documenting and self-narrating his day-trip with a handheld digital camera. Aron’s a likable guy, a well-versed outdoorsman, with charm and arrogance that Franco exports with ease. And when he finally takes the spill, those are the characteristics that drive the story forward: braggadocio and adventurism are no match for an 800-pound boulder sitting snugly on your right arm.
What follows is a series of painstaking attempts of Aron trying to free himself: chipping at the boulder with a dull blade, lifting it with a harness and yes, a chopping of the arm.
In an especially memorable scene, Aron holds an imaginary talk show from the canyon, playing host, guest and audience member alike, breaking down his situation in macabre bullet points (out of food, out of water, middle of nowhere, nobody knows he’s there etc…). Not since Gollum in “Lord Of The Rings” has a character hosted such mesmerizing dialogue between their fractured personalities.
As his trials and errors mount and the hours of dehydration and starvation pile on, Aron’s thoughts drift from his moribund reality to scattered memories of regret and failed relationships. And as his mind dwindles deeper into hallucination, Boyle’s knack for epileptic inter-reference becomes more and more fitting.
Like Jamal in “Slumdog Millionaire,” Aron finds himself in a perilous present, so he delves into his past to extract a solution and in doing so, constructs a sort of self-induced destiny.
“This rock has been waiting for me my entire life,” Aron concludes.
In no small way, this story has been waiting for Boyle his entire career. There are strands of his filmography throughout “127 Hours,” but there’s something uniquely gratifying in experiencing this kind of story through Boyle’s ants-in-the-pants direction. What happens to Aron isn’t exactly relatable, but his anxiety is; Boyle wins us over by focusing on the frenzy and personal horror anyone would feel in the situation. And in that way, “127 Hours” isn’t really a departure for Boyle, he’s just hitting his spots from a different angle.