A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2011
127 HOURS ½
2010, R, 93 mins.
2010, R, 93 mins.
Aron Ralston: James Franco / Megan: Amber Tamblyn / Kristi:
Kate Mara / Rana: Clemence Poesy / Aron’s dad: Treat
Williams / Aron’s mom: Kate Burton / Sonja: Lizzy Caplan
There is perhaps
no film that could ever fully encompass what Aron Ralston went through
during his hiking expedition in Blue John Canyon, Utah on April of 2003.
Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS – based on Ralston's 2004 published
memoir, BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE – tries its best to evoke what
it must have been like.
The book (no spoiler warning here; this is based on true
events, after all)
chronicled Ralston's experience of having his arm trapped by a large
boulder while in a Utah desert canyon for five days having only minimal food, water,
a camcorder, some basic climber’s provisions, and a very rusty and
inadequately sharp pocket knife.
After several days and no apparent hope of rescue or removing the
boulder, he did the unimaginable by severing his arm to escape.
did all of this happen?
127 HOURS tells us. Aron (played in a tour de force performance of a lifetime by James
Franco) was a former Intel engineer before he abandoned that profession to
turn to rugged and extreme outdoor activities.
On a Friday night in April of 2003 the free-wheeling, spontaneous,
and throw-caution-to-the wind adventurer leaves his home in Aspen, Colorado so
that he can enjoy his favouite pastime: driving out to Utah's National
Park canyons and deserts to do some exploring and climbing.
For him, there is no other natural high that can compare: this man
lives for the exhilaration of the outdoors.
his exploration he encounters a pair of lost female hikers (Amber Tamblin
and Kate Mara) and he decides to not only help them find their path, but
he also takes them to a hidden pool for some enjoyable downtime.
The three do eventually part ways and Aron continues on his journey,
but one particular climb has dire results: he slips and tumbles down a
very narrow and dark shaft and when he hits the bottom he finds his right
arm crushed and pinned by a large boulder.
Realizing that the boulder would require far more than his own strength
to remove, Aron comes to grips with the fact that he is hopelessly stuck.
possibly make this situation worse?
Aron selfishly and foolishly ignored to let anyone (including his
family) know where he was going and – doh! – he did not take a cell
phone with him, not to mention that he neglected to take his Swiss Army
Knife and instead hastily opted for a shoddy and cheap utility
knife (which the real Aron described as “what you’d get if you bought
a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool”).
Aron has minimal food and very little water, the lack of the latter
ultimately prove fatal if trapped in the desert heat for days on end.
After several botched (but fairly ingenious) attempts to dislodge
the boulder, Aron starts to see that an impending death is a very real
Five days go by and with little water left and knowing the end is
near, he goes out of his way to videotape a last goodbye to his family and
even etches his own epitaph on the canyon wall.
He becomes delirious and physically sick and begins to hallucinate.
How he manages to pull together what was left of his inner
fortitude is beyond comprehension, but Aron does gather up his last
strength (and adrenaline induced nerve and courage) and creates a tunicate
and slowly and methodically begins to brutally gnaw away at what was left
of his arm with a knife that barely looks like it could cut through a ham
Danny Boyle has
apparently wanted to film Aron's real life trauma for years and he
utilized most of his multiple Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
crew to bring his story to silver screen fruition.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, Boyle has certainly gained a
deserved reputation for being a filmmaker that never opts to make the same
film twice (just look at his last three films, including SLUMDOG, SUNSHINE,
and MILLIONS and you’ll see) and few
directors have revealed such an untapped passion to tackle any subject
matter; 127 HOURS is definitely no exception.
One aspect that
Boyle understands about this story is that Aron is not a figure of
instant hero worship: at times, he presented as a cocky, arrogant, and
negligent adventurer that takes bold challenges without really planning
He is a narrow-minded figure hell bent on doing what he wants to do
when he wants on his own terms and regardless of what others think.
Yet, on the other hand, it’s impossible not to sympathize with
his plight, being trapped by no fault of his own and being completely
isolated from civilization.
For that, 127 HOURS becomes a gripping and gut-wrenching testament
of a risky, but headstrong, smart, and cunningly brave young man that went to
lengths many may not have in order to free himself from death.
This film would
not work if it were not for James Franco’s casting, and within the first
few minutes of the film he shows that he is more than adept for capturing
Aron’s boyish brashness, jubilant confidence, and untamed spirit for
Yet, when he does get stranded and essentially remains the one-man focal point for the
remainder of the film, Franco’s performance
morphs into one of teeth-clenched resolve and animalistic intensity when faced
with impossible-to-overcome odds and personal pressures.
Franco has been largely know as a fairly lightweight comic actor as
of late (granted, he’s deceptively good at it: see PINEAPPLE
EXPRESS), but 127 HOURS revels in how naturally he can dial
himself into a multi-faceted and disturbed character and make his
near-death situation feel all the more hauntingly tangible.
Few performers would be able to carry a film like this – in a largely solo effort - so self-assuredly as Franco does here ands he is
the main reason we become so engaged in the film.
Yet, for as much
as I extensively admired Franco’s work in 127 HOURS, the film suffers
from the weight of far, far too much stylistic hubris from Boyle that only
serves to subvert the human element and drama from the proceedings.
Boyle is as technically proficient as any working director today
and has never made an awful looking film, and in 127 HOURS he makes
stupendous use of cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique
Chediak’s lush, sun-drenched, and simultaneously beautiful and
foreboding Utah landscapes.
Unfortunately, Boyle never really finds a way to settle the film
down from its frequent hyperkinetic and light-speed paced visual excesses,
which ultimately make the film reverberate more as a MTV travelogue music
video than a harsh, gritty, and cinema vérité reconstruction of
Aron’s nightmarish ordeal.
Again, it’s not
that the cinematic techniques utilized here are amateurish, just that they
are improperly and impersonally used.
Boyle liberally uses split screens, multiple film stocks, head
spinning editing, and an annoyingly and aggressively bombastic music score
by SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s A.H. Rahman that batters us so numbingly that
it takes us out of the emotional core of Aron’s story and predicament.
I looked at wickedly inventive shots (like one where we see the
bottle’s point of view of Aron drinking from it and another where we see
urine being slurped from it - yuck) and was left wondering for what purpose does
this serve, other than to look technically accomplished?
Boyle’s unsubtle style also serves the counterproductive purpose
of draining out any amount of natural tension and intrigue that the
build-up to Aron’s final act could have had.
The infamous amputation scene – which caused many to notoriously
flee screenings – is a bravura exercise is makeup design and methodical
editing (you are made to think you are seeing more than you actually do),
but the spine-tingling and cringe worthy moment seems more about admiring
the technique than it does about placing yourself in the mindset of what Aron was
mentally going through.
127 HOURS reminded
me considerably of a much better film about one lone man placed in a
unpromising situation with no apparent resolution – BURIED.
That film – which featured a man buried alive through the entire
running time – built a level of Hitchcockian suspense and thrills for
how it immersed us in the man’s hellishly claustrophobic
The film combined a jarringly credible lead performance with
low-key and unflashy visual resourcefulness to evoke the protagonist’s
127 HOURS gets that difficult formula half right:
Franco’s virtuoso performance emotionally lures us in to
his character’s story, but Boyle’s scrambled, dizzying, restless, and
needlessly self-indulgent aesthetic techniques push us away.
Perhaps the sheer limitations of Aron’s story – the dude
can’t move from one spot through three-quarters of the film –
convinced Boyle that a tenaciously spastic visual sheen was the only way
to impart intensity into it.
BURIED proved, however, that you could do just the opposite within
the limitedness of a script and premise.
127 HOURS is a perplexing film to hold in high reverence: it’s
astoundingly acted, has a riveting true story of survival, and is
artistically dazzling, but Boyle’s directorial method somewhat betrays
the central essence and raw power of the human story of perseverance.