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Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (Fox Searchlight) departs from the same premise as the first Saw movie. * Instead of two men's ankles chained by a murderer, we have one man's arm trapped by a fallen rock, and instead of Saw's titular tool, we have a cheap Chinese pocketknife. But the sickening, claustrophobic central dilemma is the same: The protagonists have been stranded in hell by a force beyond their control, and if they want to get out alive, they had better get to hackin'.
Of course, Saw and 127 Hours are films with completely different aesthetic and moral aims: Saw sought to frighten and shock its audience, while 127 Hours seeks to ... actually, I'm not sure what Boyle is trying to do here. Uplift and inspire? Yes, by moments. Gross us out? In at least two long sequences, oh, God, yes. Show off? Definitely. Boyle's signature quality as a director is his intensity. His flashy, polychromatic, pop-music-crammed style is often praised as "kinetic," but it can also feel simply busy, which is not the mood you want when trying to re-create five days of soul-searing isolation and silence.
Unlike a horror movie, 127 Hours can't take advantage of narrative suspense, based as it is on a well-known true story: In 2003, 28-year-old Aron Ralston (James Franco), while hiking alone in Utah, was pinned against a canyon wall when a boulder came loose and crushed his right arm. After five days, a dehydrated and delirious Ralston managed to amputate his own arm below the elbow, rappel down a 100-foot drop, and hike out of the canyon.
Severing a part of one's own body with a dull knife while fully conscious is an image that's difficult to dwell on for even a second, and Boyle clearly relishes the chance to make us contemplate the act from every conceivable angle for 95 full minutes. How much time would go by before you seriously began to consider amputation as a possibility? How would you go about doing it? How long would the severing itself take? It's not that the director is a sadist, exactly—he's just keen to experiment with extreme sensations, like a teenager with a bottle of pilfered vodka and a bungee cord.
Except for a brief opening act in which Aron flirts with two girls he meets on the trail (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and a very short coda in which he's found by some hikers and airlifted to safety, we spend every second of the movie trapped in that canyon with him. There are flashbacks as Aron remembers the family he loves and may never see again, but they're fleeting and fragmentary enough that we never experience the relief of even a brief respite. We always remain aware we're in Aron's head, especially since, whenever Aron himself appears in a hallucination, Boyle makes the smart choice of using a stand-in for Franco.
As for James Franco himself, I've long considered him one of America's natural wonders. In lieu of choosing the career path his movie-star looks entitle him to—doe-eyed romantic lead, buff action hero—Franco has become a real movie star, taking on roles that pose daunting technical challenges, and if this performance isn't quite the tour de force that his Allen Ginsberg was in Howl, it's only because the character of Aron Ralston—a laconic charmer unwilling to accept his own human limitations—seems closer to Franco's real-life self than a gay beat poet.
Boyle's last film, Slumdog Millionaire, had its hero running, fighting, and Bollywood-style dancing through the slums of Mumbai, India, with Anthony Dod Mantle's nimble camera in tow. 127 Hours takes place in a space about five feet square, but Mantle is still there, and his camera almost as active. It frames Franco's face in tight close-up as he screams for help, then pulls up, out of the crevasse and into the sky, to reveal the vast stretch of empty, silent desert that surrounds him. This is one moment when the jittery camerawork is effective, but its power is weakened by the fact that nearly every scene contains an equally gimmicky shot.
Boyle's use of sound is similarly maximalist: Sometimes it's ironic and almost lighthearted, as when Aron embarks on a new day of fruitless attempts to dislodge the crushing boulder to the sound of the '70s soul hit "Lovely Day." Later, when the shit hits the fan and the serious arm-sawing begins, A.R. Rahman's percussive, string-heavy score sounds like a horror-movie soundtrack.
I can't tell you much about how sound and image worked together in that amputation scene, because, honestly, I watched that part through intermittently covered eyes. When the film played at Telluride, there were reportedly audience members who needed medical attention, * and I can understand why: Almost despite myself—indeed, as I continued to assess Boyle's aesthetic choices dispassionately—the close-ups of a human being butchering his own limb like a leg of lamb made me feel icy-hot and clammy, as if I might pass out. (The cucumber-cool social columnist seated to my left seemed amused.)
Boyle's skill at wringing physical and emotional reactions from his audience is impressive; watching 127 Hours is, as intended, an experience of grueling intensity. But in the end, Boyle's maximalist approach has a boy-who-cried-wolf effect; a day after seeing this movie, I remembered only the peak sensations, not the story's emotional trajectory and certainly not the moral lessons (which, as far as I can tell, are pretty much reducible to "When you go on a hiking trip, leave a note"). 127 Hours wants to tell the story of a thrill-seeking adventurer forced to go on a wrenching inward journey, but the movie itself is an extreme athlete incapable of keeping quiet or sitting still.