Telluride Review: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours

Two years ago, Danny Boyle came to Telluride to give the surprise premiere of Slumdog Millionaire, a movie which was almost doomed to be a direct-to-dvd but was saved by Fox Searchlight at the last minute. The film played to a standing ovation, and as you know, went on to critical acclaim and Academy Award wins. So it isn’t much of a surprise that Boyle decided to come back to Telluride to premiere his follow-up, 127 Hours, a big screen adaptation of of the New York Times bestselling book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a engineer/ mountain climber who amputated his own arm to free himself after being trapped by a boulder for nearly five days.

Many of you probably know Boyle as the English director behind  Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire. His stylized character-centric films have won him many awards including “Best Director” at the 2009 Academy Awards. As you may expect, Boyle doesn’t take a realistic doc-style approach to the filming of this story, but instead injects it with energy and life while retaining the authenticity of the experience.

In the film adaptation Ralston is played by James Franco. You might be wondering just how much of the movie takes place during the 127 hours Ralston was trapped in the Canyon. The boulder falls on Ralston’s arm about 20-or-so minutes into the story. The moment Ralston becomes stuck in the canyon is the same moment the title card hits the screen. From there, the majority of the film takes place inside the crevasse as Ralston fights to survive and escape during the 127 hours. He doesn’t talk to himself, and had no Volleyball named Wilson with him in which to have conversations.

The screenplay, written by frequent Boyle collaborator and Slumdog Millionaire writer Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Closer) does however employ a number of dramatic devices to keep it interesting: from a few stream of consciousness flashbacks to memories and moments from his past to some more serious delusions. However, it never feels at all gimmicky.

The main problem of doing a film adaptation of true events is that most everyone knows the conclusion. Everyone knows that the story will end with Ralston cutting his arm off to escape to safety. The films that do this best are able to create a strong emotional investment between the audience and the characters involved. And this story has a bigger challenge as Ralston isn’t the most likable character — he is a cocky loner who likes climbing and biking dangerous trails. In fact, Ralston had not told anyone of his hiking plans and because of that, no one would be searching for him.

As you can imagine, being trapped for days with limited food and water, on the edge of death, you probably begin to think a lot about your regrets. This is where the screenplay, by Boyle and Beaufoy, really shines. The character records a series of video messages/last goodbyes to his family using the video camera (something that really actually happened to Ralston), and in a more delusional moment, records an interview with himself appearing on one of those cheesy morning zoo radio programs. While this is one of the moments that Boyle and Beaufoy created for the movie, it remains one of my favorite moments from the film. It is moments like these that give us a greater sense of the emotional gravity of this situation and lets us into Ralston’s head.

We connect with the character and become emotionally invested in his story in ways I didn’t imagine I would have. Franco gives the performance of his career, and hits emotional levels I didn’t believe the actor was capable of. And the range is completely authentic. Never is there a moment that doesn’t feel possible or real, or like a performance for the camera.

Boyle admitted after the screening that they filmed most of the movie using long takes, giving Franko full reign to be in the moment. Franko was left in between the rocks with one camera man and a microphone/speaker where Boyle could communicate his direction. Boyle specifically mentioned a take where they bolted the boulder on top of Franko’s arm, and let the actor spent 22 minutes trying to pry it loose. Of course, in the film these 22 minutes is cut down to only a few, but the way it was filmed makes it feel real.

It is also a big credit to editor Jon Harris (Snatch, The Descent, Stardust, Kick-Ass) for being able to edit together the footage into a cinematically interesting composition (which is a lot harder then you might think considering over 60 minutes of the 90 minute movie are of Franko trapped between two walls of rock). Boyle also filmed the whole movie in continuity.

The cinematography by Boyle regular Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak is both beautiful and claustrophobic. The small digital video cameras allowed Boyle to invade Franko’s personal space during some moments. The movie makes you feel trapped in the situation with Ralston, but not just with Ralston, but in his headspace.

Boyle reteams with A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for their last collaboration (Slumdog Millionaire). Rahman’s score for 127 Hours is more involved in the moments before and after Ralston became stuck in the canyon. I almost wish there were more of it, but it seems Boyle chose to play the dramatic moments more naturalistic (which is understandable).

As you might expect, the film does get a bit gore-heavy in the later part of the story, which caused one member of the Telluride audience to pass out. Paramedics had to be brought in to assist the individual, and I’ve been told everything is okay.

127 Hours is a brilliant, gut-wrenching and moving cinematic experience. The film will have you in tears one moment, laughing the next, and will leave you on the edge of your seat, gripping the armrests and holding your breath. This is an uplifting story of perseverance with a stronger character arc than the best fictional films released this year. This is not just a story of man vs. nature or survival. Ralston has said that he “did not lose his hand” but instead “gained his life back.” Most importantly, this is THAT story.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10

127 Hours will hit theaters on November 5th, 2010.

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