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Rock and Roll All Night (And Pare Away At Your Arm Every Day)

By Brian Prisco | Film | November 12, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | November 12, 2010 |

Danny Fucking Boyle. Wow. I admire the hell out of Danny Boyle, because he never makes the same kind of film twice, and yet still manages to leave an indelible mark to let you know that you are watching one of his films. It would be trite to list his canon, but sit back and roll it around in your mouth for a moment, the fact that the same man each one of these films. And now, he’s moved on to doing what’s basically a biopic in retelling the harrowing exploits of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Only to assume that Danny Boyle would dare make a bland straightforward biopic kind of disavows his fascinating ability to craft films. Because he very well might do that one day, his level of talent is that fucking insane. For a film that’s primarily about a young man stuck under a boulder in the middle of the Utah desert for 5 plus days to work, you need to hit every note perfectly, and Boyle is a fucking virtuoso. His cinematography is breathtaking — sweeping vista shots to claustrophobic Hitchcock-esque canted camera angles mesh brilliantly. He elicits a remarkable performance out of James Franco, an actor I never thought would hold my attention by himself for the length of a feature film but who makes you care for this adventuresome fool trapped by his own hubris. But Franco isn’t alone, not just with a dynamic albeit brief supporting cast, but with a stunning soundtrack that’s just as much a living, breathing, sneering character as everyone else. 127 Hours could have been a Boy Scout bravery story pumped full of faux pomp and heartstring plucking voiceover. Instead, Boyle manufactures a nightmarish fever dream about a boy who made a terrible mistake, and the result is fucking astounding.

Aron Ralston (James Franco), an avid outdoorsman, goes off into the mountainous terrain of Blue John Canyon in Utah alone, only to stumble and find himself stranded, pinned by his right arm under a boulder with no help in sight. He rations his precious water bottle, and when that runs out, he begins drinking his own urine. He survives freezing conditions in the bottom of a ravine, where he’s only able to get 15 minutes of sunlight a day. He confesses into a videocamera he brought along - offering up a self-written obituary to his mother and father and sister - and scratches his own epitaph into a rock wall with the date he expects to die. Finally, using a dull and cheaply made all-purpose tool, Ralston hacks off his own arm and manages to free himself. Now, all he has to do is repel down a 65 foot drop, one armed and severely dehydrated, and drag himself several miles through the blazing sun to find help. Which he does. He survives. We know this going in. It’s not some simple fiction where all the drama comes from whether or not our protagonist will live or die. We know he lives.

Boyle’s too smart to worry about that. He quickly introduces us to Aron and makes us fall in love with him through the eyes of two hikers he picks up on the trail, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn). Aron’s kind of a self-effacing dork, an experienced hiker with a rebellious and wild streak. He’s a bad boy but a sweetheart and a damn nice kid. After taking the girls on an adventure and sending them on their way, Aron hikes onward, and immediately stumbles, trapping himself for pretty much the rest of the film.

Now, let’s get this out of the way first and foremost. Aron Ralston is a fucking idiot. He’s become a motivational speaker, traveling the world climbing rocks and spreading his gospel of survival. The fact that he survived his ordeal is nothing short of remarkable. Except, it’s his own fucking fault for being there in the first place. He ran off into the wilderness, never telling anyone where he was planning on being, by himself, and got stranded. Had he bothered to inform anyone of his intentions, he would have probably been found before he had to self-amputate his own arm. Foolish pride and arrogance put him in danger, a danger which against all odds, and he managed to live to tell the tale. That doesn’t make him a hero, it makes him one lucky-ass motherfucker who should seriously never gamble again because he has used up every single blessed ounce of luck that has ever been afforded to him. If he buys a lottery ticket, it might induce a fatal paper cut. You don’t automatically become a hero solely based on the fact that you did something incredibly fucking stupid and selfish and didn’t die. A fireman who runs into a burning building that’s falling down around him to save just one more child is a hero; not the guy who sets off a bunch of bottle rockets and lives after one embeds itself into his forehead. Granted, Aron Ralston isn’t as fucking annoying as Christopher McCandless and his hippie trek to a frozen grave, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna throw him a parade.

And that’s where Danny Boyle saves the film. He never tries to separate the stupid from the survival. While trapped under the boulder, Aron never stops trying to get himself free. He keeps it together as best he can, but he still has breakdowns and freakouts and frail moments. But Boyle infuses every moment with dark and bristling humor, usually self-deprecating confessions delivered into Ralston’s videocamera. Ralston knows he fucked up, and he figures he’s dead. Danny Boyle’s version of Aron Ralston, which owes much to Ralston’s memoir, is one that is so very human. So when he manages superhuman feats, it’s done so fucking well, that you can cheer him on even though he damn well did this to himself. Our audience actually cheered when he went sans-limb.
Which is a damn good thing, because the shit this kid has to endure is gruesome. I don’t wonder why some audience members fainted at the flick. Lest we forget, we’re forced to watch a young man wither with dehydration before drinking his own urine. And then, of course, there is the fact that he saws off his own fucking arm with a dull goddamn multi-tool. His arm, which contains those two crispity-crunchety massive bones that are connected with gristly tendons to the heaping muscles. Yeah, he hacks through that with a dulled down blade and the pliers on his tool. So granted, when Jigsaw made Westley do a five-toe discount on himself with a hacksaw it was gross, but it doesn’t hold a motherfucking candle to watching James Franco become the drummer from Def Leppard.

The film rests on the performance of James Franco and whether or not you’re going to be willing to care about him being trapped in a canyon for over an hour. When you list actors that you would watch alone for an hour, Franco’s usually not top of the list. But he’s flawless as Ralston. He’s charming, cynical, bitter, enthusiastic, hilarious and heartbreaking. He’s able to express Ralston’s doggedness and fragility without losing a beat. Boyle’s got Franco going Fear and Loathing in a Craggy Ass Utah Crevasse, and it’s pretty phenomenal. Emotionally, he’s gotta tetherball all over the place, from manic and mad to focused and aloof, and Franco still keeps the entire performance anchored. Is this the performance of his career? It’s so fucking good, all I can say is so far, because if he’s got talent in him to make something this work, it’s scary to imagine where he can go from here.

When I first heard about what happened to Ralston, my first instinctive thought was why? Why in the everloving fuck would you go out in the middle of Utah to hike alone? But Danny Boyle answers that question immediately with his cinematography. His shot were straight up John Ford, beautiful mountainous desert shots of this gorgeous terrain. The first few minutes of the film could have been a tourist video to lure people to Utah. But that’s only to set up the horror film of the next hour - with throat-tightening angles that trap you as snugly as Ralston. Shots where most of the frame is taken up with rock, and the cameras are tilted ever so slightly, like someone is lying dead or waiting in a shadow, watching. When Ralston first gets trapped, the camera zooms out like Google Earth, numbing his panicked screams with the silence of the vastness of the desert around him.

Boyle and Purefoy took on a massive task in trying to adapt the story, and they use every trick in the book to tell it, from hallucinatory dream sequences to sleep-deprived flashbacks to confessionals grumbled into a videocamera. He hits on every cylinder, and the end result is way better than you could have imagined. He carefully peels away any vestige of heroism from Ralston, and allows the audience to put it back. You can cheer for Aron Ralston, while you can still shake your head at the boneheaded nonchalance that set him up here. Franco puts on a hell of a performance, a cocktail of James Dean, Andy Serkis, and Cal Ripken, Jr. And Danny Boyle continues to astound with his artistry. The more I ruminate on the film, the more I realize how much I like it, though like much of Boyle’s work, I don’t know how much magic will be retained in future viewings. But I’m still reeling from the glory of that first one.

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