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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com

127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle)

127 Hours is, so far, my pick for the most overrated movie of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, 127 Hours is not a bad film, it’s just one that doesn’t really strike me as having a particular point of view or an interest in characterization.  For some folks, that won’t be an issue, they’ll walk into the film wanting to see a man stuck in a perilous situation for an hour and change and then cut his arm off.  For those folks, that will be enough and they’ll walk out satisfied.  But for me, I need arcs, I need characters, I need to walk out of a film knowing more than when I walked into it.

I don’t know Aron Ralston any better now that I’ve seen a movie about him than I did before I walked into it.  Before the film started, I knew him as the guy who cut his arm off because he was trapped in a crevice for five days, his arm pinned by a rock.  Now that I’ve seen the film and had a day to digest it, I will still think of him in the exact same way.  He is still nothing but a fascinating symbol of the human will for survival.

And all of that is fine and dandy, except that a film is an opportunity to shape that symbol into a character and bring him into focus.  Danny Boyle instead eschews traditional narrative tropes that would have worked to the film’s benefit, instead just giving us minute after minute of James Franco screaming and gasping and slowly dying of thirst.  And while I admire Boyle’s courage in trying to make an interesting movie about this struggle, I don’t think he completely hits the mark.

Imagine Into the Wild, except the entire film is set in the “magic bus” at the end of the film.  After all, that part of Chris McCandless’ life is what brought him to our attention to begin with; had he not died in that bus, nobody would have known who he was.  But instead, the film travels back to give us a picture of how this character came to get to that bus, what drove him as a person.  As a result, when McCandless dies, we feel we have known this character and feel the loss of him.  Conversely, in 127 Hours, we don’t feel like we know Aron Ralston at all, so we he finally decides to cut his arm off, I didn’t feel the film earned that moment.  I didn’t understand what that moment meant to Ralston or what it was supposed to mean to us beyond the surface act of actually doing it.

The film gives us snippets of Ralston’s life, of how he doesn’t return his mother’s calls and his fractured relationship with a girlfriend.  But I’m not sure what these snippets signify other than that Ralston had lived a fairly normal life and had fairly ordinary motivations to get out of this situation.  This would have been the film’s opportunity to deepen the characterization of Aron by deepening his relationships with the people around him.  One could say that, “oh, but what if those relationships were boring in real-life?”  Well, this is a fictionalized account of what happened, the film therefore has license to change things around in order to fit the screen in a more interesting way.  That is the difference between feature and documentary filmmaking, the ability to shift the truth (and some would argue that documentary does the same thing).  I guarantee you that there are many elements of 127 Hours that were completely made up, but even if Boyle didn’t want to invent something entirely that would make Aron’s past more interesting, I’m sure there must have been something already there.  Human beings are inherently complicated, I’m sure there was something in Aron’s past that would capture our attention and make us care more about his plight.

Instead the first half of the film is especially trying to watch because it’s, frankly, boring.  After the initial fall in the crevice, all I was thinking was, “how long until he cuts off his damned arm?” because much of the running time is focused on Aron chipping away at the rock with the knife he eventually uses to do the deed.  There are a few good moments where Aron talks to the camcorder he brought with him (the best moment in the film is probably the “talk show scene”), but I didn’t like the fake “escape” sequence.  If you have to pad your running time by including a five minute long scene that didn’t actually happen, then you might want to think about how to better structure your film.

James Franco is good in the role, but I don’t understand the unanimous acclaim for his performance because I don’t know what he does that another (good) actor couldn’t have done.  The role doesn’t demand that much from its actor other than to scream a lot; there are very few choices that an actor could make that would change the complexity of the character.  If you had replaced Franco with, say, Jake Gyllenhaal, would the film/performance be vastly different?  Franco was certainly convincing in the role, probably his best performance to date, but I’m not convinced of its greatness, especially in a year with so many fantastic lead performances.

As for Danny Boyle, I suppose this is the kind of film you’re allowed to make after you win an Oscar, but I was disappointed with a lot of the visual “tricks” he used in order to keep the story entertaining.  A lot of the close-ups of the water being drunk reminded me of Aronofsky’s work in Requiem for a Dream, only not done as effectively.  I always found that Boyle has had a lot of trouble with the endings of his films (besides Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) and at least here, he found one with a ready-made perfect ending.

The scene of the actual arm-cutting itself wasn’t as disgusting as I anticipated it would be.  Blood doesn’t have the same effect it once did, but the moments where he has to break the bone and then cut through nerve endings were powerfully rendered.

But I got the feeling as the film went on, careening towards its inevitable conclusion that I was essentially watching a snuff film minus the death.  There are some that would be excited by that prospect, but I’m not one of them.

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4 Responses to “127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle)”

  1. Larry Taylor says:

    I feel like maybe you missed a few elements in the picture. What about Ralston’s farewells to his parents? The fleshing out of his character in the first act when he meets the two hikers? The longing for his ex-girlfriend at a desperate time? The premonition of a son?

    Ralston WAS a normal guy, but a loner, and Boyle showed that. And I don’t think the severing of the arm was particularly gratuitous, not enough to warrant it being called “a snuff film minus the death.” And saying that you are “certain” Boyle made up some of the things that Aron thought about seems a little irresponsible to me unless you know he did.

    It’s fine that you don’t like 127 Hours, of course it is, I just don’t think you make a compelling argument as to why you don’t care for it.

  2. Noah Forrest says:

    Larry, I appreciate your response, but I still don’t think the film gave me enough reason to care about Ralston’s character. When he meets the two hikers, what do I learn about Ralston other than the fact that he’s an archetype of a certain kind of young person? What do I learn about his relationship with his parents or his ex-girlfriend other than the fact that they were ordinary? If these things were fleshed out, then maybe they wouldn’t be ordinary.

    And the snuff film comment was about how the film is essentially this perilous situation that can only end in two possible ways: 1) he dies or 2) he cuts his arm off.

    As for making things up, I can’t be certain of anything of course, but I am willing to bet that Ralston’s experience was slightly different. There are 126 hours that are completely undocumented by anything other than Ralston himself; are you saying that you don’t think it’s possible (probable) that he presented his situation to make himself seem a certain way? If you believe that what you’ve seen is 100% accurate, then why fictionalize the story at all in a feature film? Why not present it as a documentary?

    I tried to make my case as well as I could, but we disagree and that’s fine. A few of my viewing companions would agree with you, but it didn’t work for me.

  3. Kurt says:

    Yes, Noah, you missed the ball on this one completely, the beauty of 127 Hours is that Boyle precisely manages to get a huge amount of character and personality via unusual techniques, particularly the opening musical bit, and the encounter with the girls, and his own hallucinations.

    I’m not saying 127 hours is the best film of the year, but it is hardly ‘overrated…’

    The Gyllenhaal/Franco thought is an interesting one, as you are pretty much wrong on it, I imagine the film would feel a lot more forced (or perhaps more generously ‘quite different’) with Gyllenhaal. Hard to say, but Franco has that unflappable warm personality that he has been exploiting in his last few films (I’ve not seen HOWL though) that lent itself quite well here.

  4. Jim says:

    Day of Oscar awards 2011: Saw it last night and unfortunately it’s boring, based on a guy who does some very stupid things in creating his own very big problem and like the reviewer, I couldn’t wait for him to just hurry up and do the deed. I didn’t care about his back story. All in all the movie’s a big disappointment and I’d be amazed if this wins anything tonight. James Franco is a very good actor but he’s getting over-exposed. I hope he makes better and fewer choices in the future.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon