The Review: It’s a fair question to anyone who’s ever won a major award, especially something as high profile as the Best Director Oscar – what next? Looking back over the last decade of winners, it would be safe to say that, with the possible exception of the Coen brothers, every winner has either peaked when they won the award or sometime before it. Slumdog Millionaire might have been his Oscar winner, but Trainspotting had been his calling card for a decade before that, and try as he might, until the his trip to the slums he’d struggled to repeat the composed brilliance of that and his first feature, Shallow Grave. However, another common theme of those award winning directors is their desire and ability to swap between genres and styles as if it was almost compulsory, and in that respect Boyle is no different.
So after a sweeping epic with a touchstone of popular culture at its core, Boyle has decided to make a high concept true story. If you don’t know by now, Aron Ralston was an experienced and cocky young canyoneer who ventured into the rocky wilderness of Utah in 2003, and didn’t feel the need to tell anyone his whereabouts. Several hours later, Ralston came to be stuck at the bottom of a tiny crack in the rocks, miles from civilisation, his right arm pinned by an immovable boulder. Having explored his options, he eventually concludes that the only realistic option for his survival is to cut it off…
If you were unaware of that particular development and are now about to complain strenuously about spoilers, then don’t. Rather than the structure of a thriller, the hours counting down like a reverse Jack Bauer marathon, Boyle has fashioned a character piece, albeit one with hallucinations of a giant inflatable Scooby Doo and old girlfriends thrown in. The intention is to put you resolutely in Ralston’s shoes, to feel what he feels, and to understand what you’d do in that hopeless position. In much the same way as Ryan Reynolds did in that coffin last year, James Franco gets to prove his acting chops with some varied challenges and acquits himself remarkably well. Which is a relief, for despite odd appearances from Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn as the girls he meets on his way to the cavern, and Clémency Poésy as the apparitional ex, Franco is the only person on screen for the majority of the run time.
Boyle has a kinetic and restless visual style, so doesn’t remain pinned down for a second; his visual shorthand seems odd at first, such as shots from the inside of a water bottle, but allows for reams of exposition without requiring a man to spend the best part of ninety minutes talking to himself (water refreshing, water lower, water running out, water… oh wait, that’s not water); Ralston had a video camera and so we do get a little inner monologuing. But what we are doing to a certain extent is killing time until the third act, and it’s the structure that is the only real drawback here, our hero (who is not seen as a totally reformed character by his experience, more fortunate to possess the necessary skills to execute the deed) stuck early on and the mere title causing us to keep checking our watches until the clock runs out and… Right, those of a nervous disposition needn’t bother, for at this point Boyle cranks it up to the max, and you will feel every action to your very core. Boyle uses every trick in the book to help you truly understand what a man goes through when he has to remove a decent sized chunk of himself . But for the lopsided structure, this could have been another classic; instead, it’s a worth watch and a wonderful tribute to man’s endurance, but it just may test your endurance a little before it’s all over.
Why see it at the cinema: If you want to test your mettle and don’t feel up to torture porn, then 127 Hours has all of the gore and the anguish but comes with more character work and added street cred. Sorted. Wicked. Innit.
The Score: 8/10