127 Hours is a fascinating film to watch on so many levels. Namely how filmmaker Danny Boyle was able to take a seemingly limited story of a man trapped in a canyon when a boulder crashes on his arm, and make it in to a compelling and engaging story both visually and psychologically.
The film is based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place in which author Aron Ralston recounts how the only way he could get out of that Utah canyon was to cut his arm off.
The question becomes then, how do you take what is essentially a one-man show with James Franco as Ralston and make into a 93 minute film that's captivating and interesting - especially when we all know how it's going to end?
The answer lies in Boyle, a man who refuses to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker. With a diverse body of work that includes everything from Shallow Grave to Trainspotting to 28 Days Later to the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle proves once again there is no subject matter he cannot tackle and bring you along for the ride of your life.
For a film where an actor is pretty much in the same position throughout most of film, Boyle manages to make not a single second of it boring.
The film opens with thumping music where we see Ralston getting ready to set off on his day. Boyle uses split screens, and different p.o.v's to keep things interesting, including showing us the world through the lens of both Ralston's video and digital cameras.
Ralston's morning is full. He's already crashed his bike once, met up with a couple of girls in the canyons, took them to a swimming hole and left them with a promise that he'll likely show up to their party.
All this fun simply makes us anxious for what we know is about to occur. Therefore, it's almost a relief when Ralston finally takes his tumble and finds himself stuck. Now the real "fun" begins, meaning this is when Boyle really steps up to the plate and Franco kicks it into high gear to play the part.
With Boyle and Franco as the ultimate tag team, the creativity between both genius minds as they work together means we suffer and struggle alongside Ralston as he tires to set himself free, calls out for help, braves the cold nights and the brief 20 minutes of sunlight he's able to find during the day. But the duo also take us deeper.
As Ralston's - and therefore our own - claustrophobia, exhaustion and dehydration sets in, his mind begins to wander, taking us along with it. There are the regrets of not answering his mother's call that morning, of losing that one special girl that meant something to him, and the party he could have been at with his new friends. All are recounted in flashbacks or dream-like and hallucinatory states.
By the time he's overcome with - is it madness? adrenaline? desperation? a renewed sense for living? In any case, by the time he's ready to cut his arm off, we want it to be over just as badly as Ralston. The need to be set free both physically and psychologically affects the viewer as much as it does this young mountain climber.
The physical and visceral reaction to the dismembering of the arm is quite overwhelming. As Ralston struggles to cut off stringy nerve endings, watching it feels worse than any torture porn movies like the Saw or Hostel films. Although it happens quickly, the scene highly emotional to watch, not to mention extremely graphic.
Franco is definitely game for the role, delivering the kind of excellent performance we've now come to expect - and almost take for granted - from him.
Though Franco will likely see himself rewarded for the role come awards time, one gets the sense that there were probably a few other actors in Hollywood who would have done just as fine a job. Ryan Gosling, Emile Hirsch (who already did that to an extent in Into the Wild) and Ben Foster are just a handful that come to mind.
Luckily for Franco, he was the one who got to work with Boyle as all eyes are on the filmmaker to see how he follows up a phenomenon like Slumdog Millionaire.
Boyle does not disappoint here. With 127 Hours, he continues to fascinate and defy stereotype to becoming one of those filmmakers on every actor's wish list, like Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood.
Not only is Boyle able to capture the vast and expansive beauty of the canyons to create a stunning backdrop, at the same time he can take us right down to the bone - literally - in a CSI style shot of the inside of Ralston's arm, or from the p.o.v. of the bottom of a water bottle whose supply is quickly dwindling as Ralston's tongue laps up whatever's left.
To do this, in an unusual move, Boyle hired two cinematographers to co-shoot 127 Hours: Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire and Enrique Chediak, who worked with Boyle on 28 Weeks Later. Both men used a mix of film, digital and still cameras to create what turns out to be an unforgettable experience both visually and emotionally.
Add to this Boyle's choice of music for the film, which continues to be just as creative as all his other decisions both in front and behind the camera.