Say this for Danny Boyle: the man isn’t afraid to experiment with implementing his patented themes and style into various genres. Among others, he’s tackled horror (28 Days Later), sci-fi (Sunshine), child drama (Slumdog Millionaire), and a flat-out acid trip (Trainspotting). He favors fast-twitch editing, lots of cuts, and a hyper-kinetic energy regardless of topic. So it was a pretty ballsy decision for him to take on the topic matter of 127 Hours: the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), an outdoorsy hiker/climber, gets pinned by a boulder while mountaineering solo in Utah, and, after several days, has to cut off his arm in order to escape. The problems are what one would expect: how do you keep an audience riveted when almost everybody knows the conclusion going in, and the entire picture is mostly centered around Ralston’s various actions while trapped? Boyle knows this is a tall order, and is forced to improvise: he blitzes us with visions, flashbacks, premonitions, split-screens, and close-up after close-up of Franco’s frantic face. Franco is up to the challenge, turning in a tremendous performance: every tic, head movement, and decision feels authentic. His video captures of the ordeal are particularly effective in capturing the horror Ralston was coping with each and every second, right up to his painful final decision. Boyle also deserves credit for not glorifying the brutal exit method: it’s hard to watch, but not gratuitously so.
Alas, not even Franco’s performance or Boyle’s noble (if somewhat misguided) efforts can really justify 127 Hours existing in its current form. Boyle’s wild array of camera techniques feels like a kitchen sink approach: hit the audience with all sorts of filler to pass the time, and create drama from the improvisation. It doesn’t work—the cutaways to Ralston and his girlfriend dreamily chatting in his truck, for instance, just feel gimmicky. Only a fatigue-inspired hallucination of a rainfall-powered flood freeing Aron from his prison succeeds from a relevancy perspective, capturing the desperate fear that must have consumed him at that moment. Boyle fortunately avoids dragging 127 Hours out too long—it clocks in at just under 90 minutes—but even that feels like a serious stretch. When Franco emerges from his personal hell, there’s no real sense of redemption or emotional fulfillment: rather, we’re mostly exhausted from a combination of claustrophobia and Boyle’s nonstop camerawork. Franco single-handedly makes 127 Hours worth watching, but there’s too much manufactured drama here for it to be anything more than an interesting, superbly-acted experiment that doesn’t quite get the job done.