An Oscar can afford a director a freedom, scope and financial flexibility he’s likely never to get again, something Danny Boyle will have been deftly aware of when choosing his follow up to critical and commercial smash Slumdog Millionaire. And it seems Boyle has taken full advantage of this luxury in 127 hours; the story of Aron Ralston and his efforts to free himself from a canyon in Utah with his arm trapped beneath a boulder. Not ideal material, one might think, for a feature length film, taking place largely in a single, barren location with one, lone character. However, Boyle’s innovative and smart use of flash back and fantasy sequences makes it less about what happens in the canyon and more about what’s going on in the head of our protagonist. We’re given an expansive plain of imagination juxtaposed harshly against the intense claustrophobia of the canyon.
The result is gripping right up until the film’s inevitable gruesome conclusion, which engages your sight and especially your hearing, painting such a vivid picture you’ll be convinced you can smell it too. It was stomach churning stuff but it didn’t feel gratuitous at all as it was absolutely necessary both practically and thematically, a tragically crude allegory for the philosophical journey Aron treads; as he realises he needs people, that people are dependant on each other, he is physically maimed and will inevitably need some degree of support thereafter. The cinematography establishes the canyon as the main antagonist, the use of light can make it seem at once fluid and hopelessly rigid.
Boyle’s trademarks are in full effect, effortlessly cool, his finger on the pulse of popular culture but never to the detriment of the film, his frantic split screens feel perfectly at home next to the bounteous landscapes and home video footage. Stylistically it’s not unlike Slumdog, particularly in it’s narrative construct, if you imagine that being stuck in a canyon is the quiz. That sentence sums up Danny Boyle’s elusiveness, that I’ve gone as far as to say that being stuck in canyon is something like an ITV quiz show; Boyle is one of those paradoxical directors whose defining characteristic is variety.
James Franco, it must be said, is crucial to the success of the film, with such limited material he injects a lot of personality and is inherently personable; he inhabits the role so effectively it’s hard to imagine it being played by anyone else. The film is physically exhausting, inducing as it does squirming, gut wrenching and occasional heaving, but all in the best imaginable way. It’s a film that stays with you, in particular the next time you drink a glass of apple juice.