Boyle knew he had a narrow window of opportunity to take advantage of the worldwide success of Slumdog, and he decided to tackle a risky piece of material, inspired by Aron Ralston's ordeal when he was trapped in a narrow canyon in 2003. This film has disturbingly graphic images, and it presents another challenge for audiences in that for most of the movie, we are confined in the canyon with just one actor, the remarkable James Franco. But Boyle is such a gifted director that he overcomes the obstacles and might even match the commercial success of his earlier Oscar winner.
Boyle assembled many of the people who worked with him on Slumdog including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, producer Christian Colson, composer A.R. Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who shares credit with Enrique Chediak). Maybe it's the comfort of the collaboration that helps account for the apparent effortlessness of the filmmaking.
The film opens with a bang, with lots of split-screen effects and speeded-up digital images, as Aron heads off for a trip through Canyonland National Park in Utah. Boyle has demonstrated visual razzle dazzle and kinetic editing since his early films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Here the style is meant to mirror the energetic personality of the protagonist, an adrenaline junkie who savors adventure and shares his infectious enthusiasm with anyone he meets.
Aron encounters two girls while hiking in Utah and immediately goads them into climbing across a steep ledge and diving into a crystal-blue lake. We share the rush that the characters feel, but we also feel a sense of impending danger. The clock stops when Aron leaves the girls and begins climbing down a canyon. Suddenly he dislodges a boulder that pins his arm and traps him. From here, the film moves into a more interior mode, though it maintains energy by drifting in and out of Aron's memories and fantasies.
Boyle takes advantage of the beauty of the setting, familiar from many John Ford Westerns, but he also captures the inner life of the character. He is aided enormously by Franco, who pulls off a virtual one-man show. The actor already has demonstrated tremendous versatility, and just this year viewers have seen him as one of Julia Roberts' lovers in Eat Pray Love and as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl. Here he manages to create a radically different character -- an extroverted adventurer who is forced to turn reflective. Expect Oscar to come calling next year.
The different moods Aron experiences point to the deeper themes of the film. 127 Hours is a pointed, double-edged critique of masculinity. Aron was reckless enough to embark on this climbing expedition without telling anyone where he was going, and the film sees that his cocky, independent spirit gives him unusual survival skills. But that lone-wolf mentality also puts him in deadly peril, and the scream that he utters near the end of the film -- "I need help!" -- gives voice to his belated awareness of the inadequacy of the Wild West code of self-reliance that stunts so many men. Franco nails this key moment with rare emotional intensity.
Although Ralston's ordeal gripped the world seven years ago, there was no guarantee that a film would do justice to the chilling true story. All of the key creative personnel contribute to the movie's nail-biting tension and unexpectedly moving finale. Jon Harris's editing is matchless, and Rahman's score effectively heightens the emotion. Ultimately, however, it is the talents of Boyle and Franco that sock this movie home.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival (Fox Searchlight)
Cast: James Franco, Kata Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy, Treat Williams, Kate Burton
Director: Danny Boyle