“127 Hours”: James Franco’s head-trip thrill ride

Yes, it's the movie in which a man saws off his arm. But Danny Boyle's outdoor adventure is so much more

Topics: 127 Hours, James Franco, Our Picks, Movies, Toronto International Film Festival,

"127 Hours": James Franco's head-trip thrill rideJames Franco in "127 Hours"

Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” presents itself to the public as Oscar-worthy independent cinema, a movie that bridges the gap between art-house drama and pure pop escapism. At least, I guess it does; Boyle and his collaborators have gone further than almost anyone else in contemporary film in erasing those boundaries. What I admire about “127 Hours” — and at the same time, what makes me mistrust it — is that it’s a full-on thrill ride, meant to put its audience through an intense and even physical ordeal that parallels the one its main character must endure. It has more in common with “Resident Evil 3-D,” or with a CGI-driven theme-park attraction, than it does with a sincere indie dramedy like “The Kids Are All Right.” It’s the only plausible Oscar nominee among this year’s crop that’s going to make people pass out during screenings — a ritual celebration that began at Telluride and Toronto and shows no signs of abating.

I trust I’m not giving away too much at this point when I tell you that “127 Hours” stars rising actor-writer-21st century Renaissance man James Franco, who is on-screen for nearly the entire film, as Aron Ralston, the real-life rock climber who had to saw his own hand off to escape death in a remote Utah canyon. That scene is indeed delivered in memorable detail, with the appetite for the grotesque and the technical expertise that have become hallmarks of Boyle’s career. But it’s not enough to zap us with gross and grisly effects, or amp up the tension with brilliant sound work (although this film does those things expertly).

Boyle knows that the kind of postmodern thrill ride he’s building here requires its pastoral passages, its zones of almost abstract beauty, its tripped-out hallucinogenic Zen space. A few years ago, Boyle looked like a hit-and-miss British oddball, nearly or actually washed up, who was making genre films on the margins as “Trainspotting” faded in the cultural rearview mirror. Today, after the multiple Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire” and this movie, he is revealed as an evil genius of our age (and I say that with great affection), a hustler, huckster and showman of the highest order. I recently heard another critic describe Boyle as a “truly excellent whore,” and I feel confident that Boyle would cackle with glee at that description, while pretending to take offense.

When I first caught the movie in Toronto, I expressed uncertainty about whether Boyle and his brilliant technical team, most of whom also worked on “Slumdog,” had produced a “pop-spiritual masterpiece” or a spectacle of “self-indulgent wizardry.” As I guess you can tell by now, I’m leaning toward option B — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, or that you shouldn’t see it. (In Boyle’s world, as I failed to grasp the first time through, there’s no dichotomy between those things. They’re the same.) In fact, I’ll retract “self-indulgent,” since that’s totally unfair. That suggests that Boyle, Franco, et al., don’t seek to rock the audience’s world, when making us laugh and cry, ooh and ahh, shriek and scream is nearly their sole concern. You could stick a lot of adjectives and adverbs on this film — showboaty, dazzling, stupid, gorgeous, joyously cynical and cynically joyous, profoundly shallow and whatever the vice versa of that is — but a movie about a guy trapped in a rock canyon that somehow drags in Scooby-Doo not once or twice but (I think) three times is not exactly navel-gazing.

Here’s the guts of what I wrote from Toronto (with a few edits for clarity and context):

Although “127 Hours” could hardly be further away from the dense melodrama or Mumbai setting of “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle reunites much of his technical team, including cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (sharing D.P. duties here with Enrique Chediak), Indo-disco-trance composer A.R. Rahman (delivering another workout-ready score) and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting Aron Ralston’s memoir). And in some respects Boyle offers a similar visual odyssey, beginning with an explosive, sensual and almost fluorescent celebration of Aron’s journey into the wilderness on foot and by mountain bike, prefiguring the internal psychic voyage that lies ahead.

Shortly after frolicking in a cave pool with a couple of chicks he’s just met — they’re having a party later! Behind the diner! Just look for the giant inflatable Scooby-Doo! — Aron winds up at the bottom of a canyon with a very large boulder crushing his right hand against the cavern wall. It’s a momentary mishap, the kind of thing that could have befallen almost any hiker. A few inches in one direction, and he’d have walked away with bumps and bruises. A few more in the other, and someone might have found his bones the following summer, or the one after that.

There Aron stays for more than five days, since, brave and arrogant lad that he is, he hasn’t told anyone exactly where he’s going. This is a perfect opportunity for Boyle, in that he tends to treat his characters as research animals, and in “127 Hours” he pulls out all the stops. At first, as Aron focuses on staying alive and trying to find a way out, the movie strips down to essentials and becomes grimily, grimly realistic. Later, as the hours become days, and the water in his canteen runs out, Aron begins to realize that he has to use the last battery life on his camcorder to leave a testament. He’s almost certainly going to die in this place, and his video diaries, talk-show-style interviews with himself, dreams, hallucinations, premonitions and memories take over the movie. Let’s put it this way: Scooby comes back. More than once.

It’s worth elaborating on the fulsomely entertaining performance of James Franco, who’s up for every bit of Boyle’s challenge. It’s like an acting exercise, or a play staged by a handful of hipsters in a Brooklyn warehouse: Play a guy who’s literally stuck in place, and make us love him, hate him, weep for him and fear for his sanity, by turns. Except that throughout “127 Hours,” the filmmakers have the perfect excuse for every outrageous choice: This is how it really happened! (I don’t think that explains anything, for the record.) Whether the immensely talented but overexposed Franco is going to get his long-prognosticated Oscar for this role I don’t know, but I can’t imagine he won’t be nominated. He plays Aron as an ordinary American dude who essentially subdivides into multiple characters over the course of his ordeal, going from clownish outdoorsman and party boy to introspective chronicler of his own impending demise and visionary lunatic.

Aron’s desert epiphanies suggest Augustine of Hippo, Hildegard of Bingen and Jim Morrison all rolled into one, and that stuff all happens before he decides to saw his own arm off (with completely inadequate hardware, I might add). That event is the climax of the thrill ride, I suppose, but Boyle understands that as with sex and gags and haunted houses, this kind of movie is more about the setup and the atmosphere than the delivery. There are only a few minutes of outright on-screen gruesomeness, and if people are really fainting during this movie, they’re responding to the power of suggestion, not to what they’re actually seeing. Is “127 Hours” a good movie? Depends what you mean by “good,” of course, and also by “movie.” It won’t make my top-10 list or anything, but I do not imagine Danny Boyle cares about that. It’s a big event, that much is for sure, and it’s definitely worth paying Boyle a nickel to peek inside his tent. Does anything else matter?

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>