Danny Boyle's 127 Hours: An Existential Great Escape

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Fox Searchlight Pictures / Everett Collection

James Franco in 127 Hours

In its new home at the 14-screen Scotiabank Theatre, a couple of miles downtown from the Yorkville movie houses where it spent its first 34 years, the Toronto International Film Festival is experiencing teething pains. Late starts for screenings, technical glitches requiring changes in venue at the last minute, and the usual mob of agitated journalists. But this is a famously good-natured festival, where the locals queue patiently for hours for a movie you couldn't pay them to see any other time of year. And the critics, realizing that they are being paid to see hot-ticket items that folks back in the States won't catch up with for two or three months, stand in line and crab quietly to one other. There's rarely a tiff at TIFF.

Yesterday the press waited for 90 minutes, some for more than two hours, to see one of the two screenings of 127 Hours, Danny Boyle's first film since his Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, which received its official launch here two years ago. (The last two top-Oscar winners, Slumdog and The Hurt Locker, had their North American premieres on consecutive days at the 2008 TIFF.) The delay stoked not much more than milling and mild grousing — including jokes about how the new movie wouldn't start until 28 days later (another Boyle title) and how they'd give an arm or a leg to see it. The director himself showed up to assuage the crowds before the screening began, saying, "I look forward to reading all your '127' Hours' jokes." We were pacified and charmed. And we knew that our discomfort was nothing compared with the true-life ordeal we were about to witness.

127 Hours, which has its first public showing this evening, is based on Aron Ralston's memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place. In the spring of 2003, while on a solo sojourn onto Utah's Blue John Mountain, Ralston spent five harrowing days alone when he slipped down a crevasse and his right arm got pinned between a chalkstone boulder and a canyon wall. Suspended there, unable to sit or maneuver, with little water and food and no practical hope of rescue, Aron used his hiking and engineering skills, and heroic resources of grit and self-control, to stay alive for a few days. Finally — does this count as a SPOILER ALERT, considering that the event made worldwide news? — he determined that his only means of escape was to amputate his crushed forearm. Now he had to figure out how to do it: his only surgical tool was a soft pen knife.

In cinematic terms, the task facing Boyle and his team — co-writer Simon Beaufoy, cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, and James Franco, who plays Aron — was hardly less daunting than Ralston's. Some movies are essentially one-man shows (Spencer Tracy as the lone fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea); other films throw a small group of men into a single cramped space (like the Israeli war drama Lebanon, shown at TIFF last year after winning the top prize at Venice). Billy Wilder's The Spirit of St. Louis spent most of its time with one man (James Stewart) in a small plane, but that was a box of his own choosing. In 127 Hours, Aron is imprisoned in the worst form of solitary confinement: nowhere to move, no one to talk to — except himself, on a phone-cam. How to create visual variety for moviegoers while keeping them focused on the awful job at hand?

Boyle addresses the matter exactly as you'd expect, in his patented antic-frantic style: speedy-cam tours of the terrain, schizophrenically split screens, Koyaanisqatsi-like sky vistas. The movie slips into flashbacks (of Aron's loving family life), surmises (those two young women he met on the trail — where are they now?) and hallucinations. Meanwhile, A.R. Rahman's score and the rock-song interludes work overtime to comfort Aron and the spectator with music.

There are times when even sympathetic viewers may wish for a steadier, subtler approach, as the great French minimalist Robert Bresson brought to a similar scenario in the 1956 A Man Escapes — which carried its own spoiler alert in its original title: A Condemned Man Escapes from Death. But Boyle, who has provided elevated entertainment in many genres since his 1994 feature film debut Shallow Grave, isn't Bresson and needn't be. This is an existential prison-break movie that cuts deep and, at its earned, ecstatic climax, soars high. (Rahman's closing theme works wonders here; so does a glimpse, just before the closing credits, of the real, smiling Aron Ralston and his wife.)

The movie finds most of its thrills and drama in Franco's gaunt, expressive face. His Aron shows desperation but no panic; he slices the enormous challenge confronting him into a series of problems to be solved: finding water to sustain him, devising a pulley system to hold him, summoning the guts to get free. It's an eloquent life lesson for all who watch 127 Hours. No matter how many hours some of us waited to get this lesson, it was worth it.