Alone Down There (with James Franco)

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11/04/2010 3:00 PM |

127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle

The Aron Ralston Story—climber, pinned under a boulder in a Utah canyon for five days, amputates his own right forearm with an off-brand leatherman and returns to civilization broken but unbowed—is almost a parody of the inspirational biopic of will triumphant over adversity. Danny Boyle, though, seems to have undertaken to film Ralston’s memoir less because of its subject matter than because of its constraints—it’s sort of like an Oulipo game, or the Sixth Obstruction. (“You must make a based-on-a-true-story Oscar nominee in which the protagonist is barely mobile enough to drink his own pee.”) Ralston’s A Rock and a Hard Place is not so different from another book that’s remarkable most of all for existing, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In both cases, the odds-against is physical stasis-a condition notably less cinematic than poverty, say, or abuse, or mental illness, or people who scoff at the notion of a lady flying a plane.

One approach to the material—in some alternate hemisphere, anyway—would have been oppressive minimalism, the festival-film’s “formal rigor” with a justification more literal than usual. Mental rather than physical subjectivity would be the other option—tracing the wanderings of a mind far less tethered than the body. Unlike Julian Schnabel, whose flightily inert Bauby adaptation was neither diving bell nor butterfly, Boyle makes a choice and commits to it. Hoo boy, does he commit to it.

The film begins with literally the whole world in motion, with split-scene long shots of cheering crowds and antlike time-lapses commuters, set to A.R. Rahman’s workout-mix score. It’s a bit like a Pepsi commercial—and more like a Gatorade ad when Ralston (James Franco) hits the desert around the Blue John canyon on his mountain bike, all ultra-high and -low camera angles, orange rocks and beach-bucket-blue skies.

Franco, too, is kinetic, an athlete with a hippie’s mewling, grinning voice, who recruits a couple daytripping coeds for a canyon crawl, leads them to an underground swimming hole, and leaves to continue on his hike, all with a hobbyist’s eager, impulsive energy, so affable and outer-directed that it takes a while to scan as self-absorbed.

If you know where things are heading, this hyperactivity—familiar from Boyle’s other projects and Franco’s sleep-deprived public persona—already seems a cruel contrast by the time Ralston dislodges a boulder and falls, along with it, to nearly the bottom of a crevasse. (It’s a set—it’d have to be—though the rest of the film was shot on location.) Down here, Boyle’s approach is appropriate for the intense minutiae that keeps Ralston alive—sped-up close-up montages are obsessive about the tools and individual actions necessary for rigging up a bungie cord sorta-hammock, preserving water, rewetting contact lenses in saliva, and eventually tightening a tourniquet, all while effectively one-armed—and for the associative mental ramblings of someone without anything to do but think. (Boyle also integrates, as ever, an eclectic selection of songs—I could have done without the bouncy Bill Withers montage, though I’m told that unlikely upbeat tunes often stick in the heads of outdoorsmen in life-or-death situations.) Flashbacks to Christmas home movies (VHS-grainy), stylized memories of friends and lovers (a music video of outdoorsy kids getting frisky in a snowbound station wagon, say), fantasies of connections now seemingly permanently missed (the girl hikers invited him to a party that night, complete with “giant Scooby Doo”), all shuffle together in a believably impressionistic mindscape.

Our clearest path into Ralston’s head, though, is through the not-quite old-fashioned monologues he delivers in direct-address to his digital camcorder. Sober last goodbyes shift to feverish ramblings; an imagined talk-show appearance, with echoing sound design and pivoting camera positions, is especially addled—it’s only through watching himself on playback that Ralston stays self-aware.

What he’s aware of, increasingly, is that he won’t be found for quite some time, having gone solo as usual, down even to letting Mom go to voicemail rather than chat briefly about his weekend plans. (Boyle brings back one of his teeming overhead shots from the intro, showing Franco sitting next to an empty chair amid the mass of humanity.) His realization that his loneliness is literally killing him is the story’s soft prestige-pic heart (though leavened with a certain amount of pragmatism). Ralston really did slip into a hazy fantasy of his future son before resolving to break his bones, slice through his skin and tear apart his tendons and muscle fibers, so it’s maybe unfair to call those soft-focus reveries sappy (especially given the subsequent frank if a bit thudding depiction of the amputation, complete with bloody zombie mouth on Franco). But the Sigur Ros track that accompanies Ralston’s rescue feels less like the mental din of Ralston’s ordeal than an orchestrated soul-swelling moment interchangeable with one from any other tale of true-life uplift. Mostly, though, 127 Hours is an intriguing study in process—Boyle’s as much as Ralston’s.

Opens November 5