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127 Hours: This Movie is Disarmingly Good

After watching 127 Hours, I left the theater and took the short walk back to the metro station. I felt more aware of everyone around me, more in touch with my surroundings. Over the previous two hours, I’d run the gamut of every emotion a movie can make you feel. 127 Hours, the newest film by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, is full of joy and life. It’s intense, it’s sad, it’s thrilling, it’s deeply funny, and it makes you think. Don’t be dissuaded by the now-famous arm scene– this is an incredibly exciting movie that represents storytelling and filmmaking at its finest. Carried by the kinetic direction by Boyle and an outstanding performance by James Franco (his best to date), this is a better film than Boyle’s last, Slumdog Millionaire. It’s also more life-affirming and heart-warming than that film, without any of the cliches or Hollywood conventions. It’s easily one of the best movies of 2010.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is an outdoorsman who likes to be alone away from society. He goes on long day hikes, biking around and videotaping what he sees. Early on, in a scene which beautifully reveals Ralston’s character, his bike takes a nasty spill, and before picking himself up and dusting himself off, he pulls out his camera and takes a picture of himself on the ground with a big smile. He runs into two girls (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), and he leads them to a underground pool in a cave. The girls invite him to a party they’re going to, and he says maybe to them before heading off on his own. While negotiating down a canyon, he dislodges a huge boulder, falls, and gets his right hand pinned between the boulder and the canyon wall. He has some food and water, along with rope, flashlight, camera, video camera, and a dull pocketknife… but no phone. He’s picked a particular canyon path where no one is bound to find him, he’s down low in the canyon where sunlight nor planes are likely to reach him, and he’s told absolutely no one where he was going.

As he is trapped, he has plenty of time to think. He thinks about all of the people he had the opportunity to tell about his weekend trip but didn’t. He thinks about his parents and his ex-girlfriend. He thinks about death, a fate which he feels is destined to occur. Little moments, like when his co-worker at the outdoor equipment asks him where he was going and he blows him off, replay over and over. Conservation of water is a huge issue, because panic and dehydration make those remaining sips nearly impossibly tempting. Finally, he realizes that the only way to get out of there will be to remove his arm, since his pocketknife won’t chip away enough of the boulder. The only problem? The knife is far too dull to cut through his bone. As Ralston hallucinates and ponders the errors he’s made during his life, he learns what’s important, and he is suddenly filled with the desire to live, giving him the strength and motivation t… well, you’ll see.

I wasn’t surprised by the conclusion of the plot. After all, this film is based on a book Ralston wrote about his experience, so it’s obvious that he lives. What surprised me was how moving the film was without ever becoming exploitative. This movie is based on real events with very few exceptions: he did have visions of his loved ones, and he did videotape his will and testament. Franco’s performance, without any question the best work he’s ever done and perhaps the best performance by an actor this year, manages to be truthful and understated while never failing to capture the gravity of the situation. He utilizes an everyman sense of humor, the type of humor that one needs to have to stay sane in such a horrifying set of circumstances, without ever being forced. The tone of the film is flawless. It can go from nail-biting suspense to heart-wrenching sadness to laugh-out-loud humor and back within a ten-minute span, and while the script is structured well, I’m not convinced this film works without a performance of Franco’s caliber.

Danny Boyle is the one who really makes everything gel, however. The trap of making a film like this is the boredom factor: how do you make a movie that takes place in one location exciting? (Everyone had hyped up that Ryan Reynolds movie that takes place entirely in a coffin, and then no one saw it. Why? No one wants to watch ninety minutes of the inside of a coffin.) The camera soars in and out of the canyon, cuts to flashbacks, zooms through his camel pack and into his canteen. It’s a visceral, almost raw experience. By not keeping the camera in the canyon, he makes the film more exciting AND he manages to capture the claustrophobia far better than if he’d filmed exclusively from within. He also is as good as any living director at utilizing sound and music to help set tone and make his points. The removal of the arm, while intense, never exploits the violence. It’s intense not because the camera lingers on the gore, but because we care about the character. It’s not a moment of horror, but one of ecstasy– he’s in pain, but he’s free and he knows it, which gives off a sense of joy. Tonally, this type of juxtaposition is tricky, but Boyle captures it seamlessly. 127 Hours is about learning that life is other people, and the importance of fighting for life with every fiber of your being. It’s not cheap, manipulative, and cloying like so many movies which try to be life-affirming– Boyle shows it by breaking an arm and slicing through muscle and nerves. There’s not a frame of film that takes a misstep. It’s nothing short of a cinematic achievement, and if there’s justice, it will keep the Oscar competition at… arm’s length.

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~ by russellhainline on December 5, 2010.

One Response to “127 Hours: This Movie is Disarmingly Good”

  1. […] Original Score: 10. A.R. Rahman, 127 Hours 9. Anton Sanko, Rabbit Hole 8. Nigel Godrich, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World 7. Daft Punk, Tron: […]

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