Why did Danny Boyle decide to make a 94-minute film about a climber who spends five days with his arm pinned by a large rock before performing an amputation with a dull multi-tool? Sadly, the answer has less to do with perversion than it does with cheap optimism. Normally I’d be wary of spoiling the finale, but everyone who knows what 127 Hours is about also knows the story of Aron Ralston. And let’s be honest, the only reason you’d watch it is if you were interested in seeing a filmic representation/interpretation of a dude hack through his own arm.
Unfortunately, because the film has this intensely teleological structure, this amputation-trajectory, the second act is drained of both dramatic weight and suspense. The audience knows that Ralston isn’t going to die, so eventually we start to root for the gore (“Cut it off already!”). James Franco gives a fine performance, which is merciful since it constitutes the overwhelming focus. But Boyle doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, unless you liked the direction he took with Slumdog Millionaire. The opening sequences are shot like fitness/energy lifestyle commercials: mountain biking, panels, high contrast, saturated colors, indeterminately ethnic electronic music.
Oh, the soundtrack! I’m fed up with soundtracks. As if existential desperation and anguish were not sufficiently manifest in a choice between death and limb, Boyle employs music as an emotion machine. Closeups, too, are called on for their stock value. The polish detracts from the dramatic possibility as much as the pacing, which necessitates an alternation between event and montage, moving from subtle character insight to overwrought self-actualization bullshit.
It’s not complete dreck; several scenes begin to explore the relationship of Ralston to his camera. Performing his suffering alienates it from him, providing enough distance to laugh, reflect, and calm down; footage of him screaming for help carries him through the moment of claustrophobic panic to a rational trial of escape techniques. Affect is mobilized to clear itself out for reason; rationality is broken down to release the wild potentialities of affect.
Seemingly, the audience is supposed to arrive at a similarly cathartic experience through the ecstatic power of film. The agony of applying pliers to a nerve or tendon is necessary to effect the spiritual metamorphosis. Except the transcendent sadomasochistic impulse is veiled by the “real” impetus for Ralston’s salvation: a premonition of his unborn son. Despite what you might have read elsewhere, the amputation scene is not unflinching, which makes it much less nauseating than the visions of a young boy bathed in heavenly light.
Along with the ill-conceived embedded love story (lamentations of losing the beautiful woman, fantasies of recapture and rejection), the automatic genetic drive to reproduction which is disguised as self-external purposive meaning sinks the otherwise bizarre narrative into base sentimentality. I realize that the film is based on Ralston’s autobiography and that he now gives $25,000-a-pop motivational speeches, but accept the responsibility of artistic license. Scary to entertain the possibility that Danny Boyle believed he was doing exactly that.