I’ve been craving some neologism, some German word perhaps that best describes that work of art that by all rights should be just awful, yet, amazingly, beautifully, it succeeds against all odds. Whatever word we wish to employ, this latest film by Danny Boyle fits that sentiment exactly.
Stories filtered throughout TIFF of viewers becoming antsy or downright nauseated during the “big” scene. There’s no secret in this film that a guy cuts his own arm off. Heck, the title itself alludes explicitly to the duration of his ordeal. Yet, for all those wishing for some visceral or exploitative thrill in watching a man suffer will find in this film instead a kind of, well, beautiful sense of wonder.
What makes the story of Aaron Ralston so compelling to watch on screen is that it eschews classic film jeopardy moments, the trapped-in-a-box trope, by showing a character with deep knowledge trying to excise himself from his predicament. There’s never a sense that he doesn’t know exactly what to do, it’s that time after time these incredibly technical and often elegant ways of trying to escape from his rock captor simply fail.
Franco’s performance, the best I’ve ever seen him give, is equally remarkable. He avoids any kind of manic hysteria, and by simply playing the fear and drama as real emotions, rather than heightened or manipulative theatrics, we begin to share with him in a startling, intimate way his travails. This is a man trapped who knows what to do, a well trained expert (unlike, say, the idiot who crawled INTO THE WILD). This is a man who tries everything possible, things I couldn’t have imagined, in order to escape from his situation. It’s these failings that are far more powerful for the audience – to see an average person fail is to be expected, to see the expert do so brings the drama to a whole other level.
The film rests upon Franco’s shoulders (quite literally), but the prelude to the accident, and the moments of reflection during his captivity, open up the film without seeming contrived. A marvelous sequence involving letting one’s self go from a cave face to drop into an unseen body of water is one of those captivating, extraordinary scenes that can define this film for years to come. That sense of exhilaration (mixed with trepidation, knowing what’s to come) is a beautiful piece of cinematic technique, and reveals Boyle’s talent early on in the picture.
The music throughout the film is strong (not surprising from the man that made TRAINSPOTTING), but when the days begin to run out, Boyle chooses a perfect piece of music for the scene, “Festival” by Sigur Rós. The otherworldly, chanting-like piece by the Scandanavian Space-rockers matches the tone of the finale in an astonishing way.
Seen within the dozens of films at this year’s fest, 127 HOURS, a relatively modest film without much in the way of bombast, nonetheless cut through like a knife. While Boyle’s more exotic and rambunctious SLUMDOG took all the plaudits from a few years back, this, in its own, more direct way, is truly a masterwork. When the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place, this is a film that does that very rare thing, it makes you feel more alive, and ever so grateful for being so.