Toronto: James Franco dazzles in Danny Boyle's demanding '127 Hours'
Danny Boyle has reached a point in his career where he makes it all look easy.
"127 Hours," based on the true story of Aron Ralston, is a difficult piece of material to turn into a compelling theatrical experience, no matter how much the idea of his story might engage people automatically. Ralston was a canyon climber, an outdoorsman who loved to push himself by driving to remote locations alone and exploring. During one such expedition, he slipped on a loose rock, fell into a canyon, and the rock fell on him, pinning his arm to the wall. He was forced to spend 127 hours there until his eventual fate, and the film traces that experience.
So, yes… to answer the obvious question, much of the film is just James Franco by himself at the bottom of the canyon. But even saying that, it doesn't really explain the experience, and that's because the script by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy is very smart, very emotionally direct, and the ways they open up the by-nature claustrophobic situation are all in service of allowing us to share Aron's experience in some small way. James Franco is a big part of why it works, and to explain why I think "127 Hours" is so special, I sort of have to drag another film into the conversation by comparison.
I'm not a fan of "Buried," which Lionsgate will release on September 24, and when I saw it at Sundance, I remarked on how I respect the effort even if I don't like the end result. That's the movie that is almost entirely set inside a coffin where Ryan Reynolds has been buried alive, and as hard as Reynolds and the director work, I just didn't buy it. It's a lot of energy in service of a script that never really made me believe the premise or the peril.
With "127 Hours," you have a film where your main character is trapped in a very small space, with much of the running time just spent with him. The difference in approach between the two films is that "127 Hours" draws you in, makes you feel what Aron felt. All the sorrow, all the hope, all the pain, all the self-hatred, all the drive to survive. It's impressionistic, and scripting that must be hard enough, but to actually assemble all the elements, to shoot everything you'd need to build this one… that's just sort of overwhelming, and that's what Boyle makes look so easy.
Franco's never been better in anything else he's made, and the performance is going to win him all sorts of new fans. He's human and vulnerable and resourceful and charismatic, even as he crumbles right before your eyes. The supporting cast, such as it is, basically appears in either a few scenes at the start or in what can only be described as interactive memories that Aron has while he's trapped. Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn are engaging in the early scenes, and Clemence Posey and Treat Williams and Kate Burton and Lizzy Caplan all lend just the right touch to their work as Aron's loved ones. For big stretches, it's a one man show, and Franco invests Aron with such a vibrant spirit from frame one that the audience never even considers getting bored. Even something as simple as saying goodbye to the camera he has with him seems fresh and engrossing thanks to Franco's work.
Perspective is a funny thing. Today's Press & Industry screening of "127 Hours" got royally cocked up. I was in line an hour early to make sure I got in, and then the film got delayed by another hour, with all sorts of noise and hassle before the film finally rolled. I saw the reactions in the crowd around me, and i can speak for my own reaction, too. Everyone grew steadily more agitated, more upset. Schedules were being destroyed with every minute that passed, and with no one giving us information in line, people were getting angry. Even once we knew what was going on, it was still frustrating. By the time everyone got into the theater and was seated, it would have been very easy for that audience to take it out on the movie.
Thing is, once you've sat through Aron's story, you'd have to be a giant prick to complain about a two hour wait in a carpeted air-conditioned movie theater lobby with your laptop just so you can see a movie. We were inconvenienced today, but so what? I know how hard the festival's working to keep everything working, and today threw them some giant curve balls. Thanks to perspective and the deft, brilliant touch of Danny Boyle, I was reminded this afternoon that the little inconveniences just don't matter, and when the big ones arrive, all you can do is meet the challenge, eyes open, head up, and pray you have the strength and the support to make it through. "127 Hours" is a powerful movie experience, and you owe it to yourself to see it theatrically for the full unforgettable impact.
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