Sunday, April 3, 2011
Review of 127 Hours
I remember watching the preview for 127 Hours, familiar with the harrowing ordeal on which it’s based, and asking myself: “How could that story possibly be turned into a feature-length film?” The answer, I now believe, is that it can’t.
Directed by Danny Boyle (most recently of Slumdog Millionaire fame), 127 Hours tells the true story of Aron Ralston, an experienced climber and all-round thrill-seeker; during one of his hiking excursions, Ralston’s arm became pinned to a canyon wall by a boulder that dislodged and fell on him. Trapped for days, and with no other hope of survival, he ultimately amputated his own arm in order to free himself. James Franco stars as Ralston, not having to play character so much as situation.
127 Hours was the only Best Picture nominee this year that I didn’t “manage” to see before the Oscars ceremony, surely for the very same reason that scads of other people didn’t “manage” to see it: the unquestionable gross-out potential. Finally forcing myself to rent it, I shuddered taking the DVD off the shelf, squirmed finding it in my bag later, gagged a little putting it in the DVD player, and shivered and twitched all the way back to the couch. You see, my empathic abilities are a little too finely tuned. And my sense of what the film would be felt firmly fixated on the moment, its extreme self-violence and how the filmmakers would handle it. In fairness though, this is the moment that makes it a story at all – and there’s the rub.
I would argue that just about every person watching 127 Hours knows the story (it can be captured in a headline’s worth of words after all); as a result there is something perverse in the dramatic irony that gets served up in the film. As audience, we know that any strategy Ralston devises to escape will not be the one that frees him. We know that he’ll never move the rock with the elaborate pulley system he rigs up, that chipping away at the rock is absolutely pointless, and that no help is on its way, ever. In short, we know too much: the excruciating sacrifice Ralston will have to make is not a matter of ‘if’ (even though he thinks so for a while) but of ‘when’. Understandably, it’s very difficult not to obsessively anticipate the amputation, out of sheer curiosity about how it will be shot and shown, and/or to steel oneself for the intimate horror it represents.
Of course several films tell stories of real world disasters or actual traumas for which we already know the ending – Alive, Appollo 13, Into the Wild, Titanic to name just a few. In such cases, the filmmaker’s primary task is developing rich story-telling techniques that will engage the viewer despite their apriori knowledge of where it’s all going. The outcome in the case of 127 Hours is such a specific and viscerally horrifying trauma that I would argue there’s almost no distracting from or adding to it. But if there were, Boyle certainly didn’t find it.
What Boyle does give us is a lot of slapped-on style – music video aesthetics, split screens, heavy use of helmet-cam/steadi-cam, and rude injections of capital S Soundtrack (which, unlike music, is used hyper-self-consciously, with hipster aspirations and a CD release in mind) that actually rendered a few sequences laughable. From sweeping overhead shots of the canyon’s vistas to those fetishizing extreme close-ups (the cinematographic bread and butter of detective shows like CSI), the stylistic choices came across as grasping: near-desperate attempts to make more of this story than there is. In a recurring use of split screen, Boyle smashes together three images (oh, let’s say, of people 1. filing out of a subway, 2. swimming in the ocean, 3. watching a basketball game) to form a triptych that ultimately only asks: this looks like it should mean something doesn’t it?
Admittedly, I have an extreme bias about extreme sports. I am capable of taking certain risks, but never ones that might compromise my own physical safety. This has been true since as long as I can remember, and I firmly believe that one’s attitude towards outdoor adventure is mostly hard-wired. Thus, if a self confessed danger-junkie runs into peril, my sympathies can be a little hard to marshal. That is, it’s hard to refrain from passive aggressively asking: “Sorry, is this not the very danger you’ve been so recklessly courting?” From his portrayal in the film, and scant interviews I’ve heard with him, Ralston is not a man of immense depth or much introspection. That’s fine (and unsurprising), but ultimately, and perhaps as a result, his story can’t muster much thematic weight. We’re not really invested in our protagonist as a human being, except to the extent that he’s a human being stuck in a unique predicament with a hard-to-fathom escape hatch. The truism that people will go to extreme lengths to ensure survival is a little too self-evident and oft-heard, and Ralston’s few epiphanies as he contemplates impending death – for instance, realizing he should have returned his mother’s phone calls more often – are pretty unsatisfying.
The title of the film – the amount of time Ralston spent trapped – seems to speak to its overall lack of substance. If the most notable aspect of Ralston’s experience is how long it lasted (and of course the radical act it necessitated), I don’t think that’s enough to work with. And I truly wonder why Boyle thought it was. Ralston’s unfortunate title for his book about the experience, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, is obviously not much better, but at least it speaks to the nature of the experience instead of its length. (955 words).