Mortal inevitability, that brief “oh shit” moment of acceptance just before one’s death, has always been a subject of great fear and fascination for me. How, I wonder in my late-night boredom, might that moment be experienced? I’m certain I would think about my family, given the time, but in what order and space?
That morbid mixture of curiosity and hesitance (I’m also highly claustrophobic, enough so that I opted out of seeing the recent Buried) heavily informed my viewing of 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire follow-up, and might be partially responsible for how much I thoroughly enjoyed it.
James Franco, that wonderful actor whose muse-chasing academic and artistic exploits over the years have been a delight to keep track of, stars as Aron Ralston, a real-life thrill-seeker who, in 2003, slipped into a cavernous crevice in Blue John Canyon in Utah and became stuck (literally) between a rock and a hard place. Ralston can thank, or maybe blame, his remarkable resourcefulness for the fact that he spent five days in the canyon, stuck in place and is given all the time in the world to consider his seemingly certain death.
Boyle and his Slumdog co-writer Simon Beaufoy place us not just in the canyon with Ralston but inside his head. We see things and remember moments as he did: idiosyncratically and sentimentally, yet from a distance. In contrast to Boyle and Franco’s depiction of Ralston’s day before the incident – a time of boundless energy, casual flirting and, above all else, adventure – Ralston’s Sisyphean time inside a sliver in the ground is one of forced contemplation and quiet.
Of course, this being a Danny Boyle and James Franco collaboration, the film is anything but silent. Surprisingly, it hums throughout – almost too much – with charged, frayed energy; Ralston does not go quietly into that good night. Instead, he remembers the girl who got away, his failings as a son, his pride as a brother and his now-improbable future as a father. These serve as both humbling curtain calls and Herculean motivators. In one of the best scenes, Ralston’s thoughts turn meta: He considers the course of events, over billions of years, that led to this boulder crushing his arm.
Franco’s performance is nothing short of mind-blowing. We know from the whirlwind of publicity surrounding him at the time that the real Ralston escaped by sawing off his trapped arm with a dull knife, and there is an inescapable sense of dread leading up to that moment. But I found myself trusting Boyle and Franco so much that, although the escape would be a visceral one (and it is), I knew I would be glad it happened.
Not all of Boyle’s choices are expert – the bookend framing of human triumph all over the world seems more Richard Curtis than Boyle, and the director’s ADD hobbles some of Franco’s finer moments – but enough cannot be said for this film’s cinematic certitude.
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