Always Bring the Sharp Knife
Main Cast: James Franco
Director: Danny Boyle
I eagerly awaited the arrival of 127 Hours from Netflix. It’s one of the few Oscar contenders that I didn’t get to see before the awards and I’m a fan of Danny Boyle. My impressions of James Franco have always been rather mixed but I was excited to see what the pair would do with this intimate and grueling tale.
Based on the real life experiences of Aron Ralston, 127 hours takes us deep into Canyonlands National Park in Utah where the young man (played by Franco) has decided to hike for the weekend. He’s a skilled outdoorsman and clearly knows his way around the canyons, even taking time from his solitary journey to show off for a couple of girls he meets along the way. As he works his way into the labyrinthine canyons and away from any semblance of civilization Ralston suffers a minor fall that leads to a major consequence. His arm is stuck between the cavern wall and a large boulder. All he has with him is minimal water and food and a few basic hiking supplies. There is no one to help him. He’s trapped.
127 Hours is a remarkably simple story. One man stuck in a crevasse in the middle of nowhere trying to survive using only basic supplies and his skills as a hiker. The challenge for Danny Boyle and James Franco is to make us care about Aron Ralston and maintain the suspense and fear inherent in the situation throughout the duration of the film. In some ways they succeed, in others they fail.
James Franco is a spotty actor who can spin out a wildly funny performance in Pineapple Express on one hand and be merely adequate in the Spiderman franchise on the other. He’s a very interesting person, with an artist’s sensibilities and a craving for learning that leads him to pursue unusual projects. But of late he mostly just seems stoned. Franco carries the huge burden of being onscreen, alone, nearly 100% of the time in 127 Hours and maybe this resulted in his Oscar nomination because looking at the performance itself, it’s nothing special. Once again, he spends quite a bit of time looking dazed and out of it – the result of his worsening physical condition. But it’s the same vapid expression I’ve seen before, devoid of much more than glassy eyes and a dopey grin. He doesn’t manage to bring very much real feeling to the role – I feel very little anger, sadness or fear.
I believe that this less than stellar performance does not lie on the shoulders of Franco alone. Aron Ralston as scripted comes across as cocky and arrogant, scripting his time in the canyon to put himself in the best possible light should he be found dead someday. As he films himself talking to and about family and friends it feels self-aggrandizing and false. Was he trying to spare them the pain of his real fear and agony? Perhaps. But if that’s the case, we need to see that fear and pain in his private moments when the camera is turned off and he is alone with his thoughts and memories. Instead, we see little difference between the Ralston he films and the private Ralston. He pretends to have an epiphany about his selfishness and stupidity in undertaking this particular hike, but it doesn’t feel sincere. He talks to and about his “loved ones” with enough detachment that they are never allowed to coalesce into people about whom we might have any concern if he were to perish. The screenplay fails Franco and he’s not able to pick up the pieces and insert real emotion into a cold and stunted character. I hope the real Aron Ralston is a better person than the film Aron Ralston.
Where the movie does succeed – and succeeds wildly – is in the filming of Ralston’s predicament. The setting is ridiculously foreboding and beautiful at the same time. Director Boyle and cinematographers Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle bring us into and out of that crevasse in ways that make us understand the siren song of the canyons as well as the desolation and anger that lurk around every corner. The film is stunningly gorgeous, not only because of the Utah scenery but because the filmmakers understand exactly how to bring us down into this crisis without leaving the vast expanse of uninhabited desert behind.
I have mixed feelings about 127 Hours. It’s a remarkable true story on its face. It’s phenomenally filmed. It’s also lacking a fundamental connection with the main character that leaves me cold. I don’t like this Aron Ralston. His actions don’t feel brave and his words don’t feel honest. He feels selfish, arrogant and foolish. He seems to find none of the insight into self that such an ordeal might bring. If this is in fact the real Aron Ralston, bravo to both Boyle and Franco for their adherence to reality and willingness to bring an unlikable young man to the screen in all his ignorant glory. If it isn’t the real Ralston, the screenplay fails to bring the necessary humanity to the character. Either way, the film is beautiful but the character with whom we spend nearly every moment comes off as a jerk. Three stars for the stunning presentation but a marginal recommendation for the film as a whole.