Sunday, 16 January 2011

Film #1 - 127 Hours

Nick Hornby once wrote of Bob Dylan that, even though he (Hornby) couldn’t call himself a real fan of the man’s music, he had still accumulated some fifteen or so albums - most of which he held in high regard.

This comes close to my feelings on Danny Boyle. I’ve seen nearly all of his films and, on the whole, enjoyed them very much but if asked to name, say, my top ten active directors I probably wouldn’t include Boyle. This is unfair – he is undoubtedly an excellent and instinctive film-maker, with an extraordinary sense of the cinematic experience.

His key unifying motif – one person against overwhelming odds – has found expression in an very broad range of settings: heroin-addled tenements, the Solar System, zombie-plagued London and now the wilderness of the American west.

The antagonist is here is simple and amoral: a dirty great rock that has trapped the arm of protagonist Aron Ralston, a young and self-absorbed thrill-seeker, against a canyon wall. Ralston stays put for the titular 127 hours before choosing to cut off the arm with a cheap penknife in order to escape. A straightforward (and true) story that is tailor made for a Danny Boyle film - a personal transformation with lots of potential for grand visuals
Occasionally the hyper-reality of Boyle’s visual world can overstep the mark (e.g .the baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting) . In 127 Hours I found some of the camera work a bit jarring, veering from the sweeping Lawrence-of-Arabia desert shots to the kind of jerky style that would once have been described as ‘very NYPD Blue’.

Nevertheless his visual invention is unquestionable. As well as the majesty-of-nature stuff and the more hallucinatory flashbacks and dream sequences there are subtler techniques at work. We see a great deal of mise-en-abyme (in a more literal sense than usual - one for the literary theorists there) with Ralston's self-recorded footage. Boyle also gives us a ‘straw-cam’ a ‘flask-cam’ and perhaps inevitably a ‘bone-cam’, all of which takes us closer and closer into Ralston's restricted environment - a scrutiny that contrasts expertly with the soaring vistas of his fantasy-escapes and dream-flights (one of which features wonderful use of Bill Withers's Lovely Day).

To concentrate on the direction and the production values would be a disservice to the acting. James Franco is simply superb as Aron Ralston – he nails perfectly the blend of narcissism and joie-de-vivre and ultimately self-awareness. The script - which could have taken the easy way out and 'done a Slumdog’, alternating between the present predicament and life episodes relevant to it - bravely keeps the audience with Ralston in the moment, and consequently we are with Franco from start to finish. It's unusal for an actor to have to carry a film like this; Franco gives us a sustained masterclass in believable characterisation.

Of course, it's not just a bloke in a cave for an hour and a half - there are flashbacks, premonitions and hallucinations aplenty, but all are hypnagogic and rooted in the present. These serve to give context to Ralston’s transformation, which Franco deals with superbly as his narcissism gradually gives way to self-awareness. The epitome of Franco's skill is the perfect reaction as he looks back on his now-amputated arm still trapped in the rock, an expression conveying  relief, remorse, libertation and weariness simultaneously.

(Incidentally, much has been made of this auto-amputation scene with stories of paramedics hauling out nauseous journos in the press screenings. No doubt this is mostly smart Hitchcockian marketing; the scene is grisly and very difficult to watch (and listen to) but is certainly much less graphic a than, say, the Saw series.)

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying - yes, I liked this film. It's thrilling and, for a mainstream film, quite daring. The central performance is superb, the audio-visual world is compelling and the story is well-paced. On the downside, while the character of Ralston does undergo a transformation he remains fundamentally unsympathetic. Also, this is not a film of great depth and will not bear a great deal of repeated viewing. As a cinematic experiece and actorly exposition though, it is excellent and well worth...

******* 7/10