Thursday, December 30, 2010

127 Hours

I have previously been open to the occasionally vicious criticism leveled at Danny Boyle. I can sympathize with those who say Sunshine falls apart in the third act though I feel that was the only logical development of the story to that point, or with the Slumdog Millionaire detractors who say it's too glitzy a look at extreme poverty and it appropriates Dickens' optimism and sentimentality without the keen, detailed eye for social commentary that kept his stories serious (though I tend to view those calling Slumdog racist with much more skepticism). At last, I am faced with what must seem de rigeur for the haters: 127 Hours is shameless, garish and so falsely confident that its air of smug self-assurance only makes the experience more intolerable.

The story of Aron Ralston, the man who got trapped while hiking alone and -- SPOILER ALERT! -- ultimately amputated his own crushed arm so he might get to safety, 127 Hours gets off to a particularly offensive and callous start with an inexplicable series of split-screen shots showing people engaged in activity that prominently features hands. Whether it's crowds waving (or doing The Wave) or swimmers cutting through the water with their arms moving in angular precision, these moments seem an odd, cruel jab at Ralston, conveying no sense of foreboding, only a sneering irony. The shots continue as the film's Aron (James Franco) suddenly takes over one of the three strips of film on the screen, rapidly packing a backpack full of snacks and some gear as he prepares to head out to Blue John Canyon in Utah. In the final moment of hyperkinetic foreboding, the camera stays inside a cupboard as Aron's hand blindly fishes around for a Swiss Army knife that stays just out of his reach. Without peering in to have a look, Aron shrugs and moves on, throwing his crap in a beat-down truck and heading out to the wilderness before the sun breaks.

Out at the canyon, Aron tears across the place on a bike for 17 miles before hopping off and going for a run. He meets and entertains two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before setting off again on his own. He climbs around a bit and tries to ease his way down a moderately deep crevasse when the rock he puts weight on snaps from its perch and sends him plummeting. The rock comes to a stop when the canyon walls narrow, and it just so happens to stop with Aron's right arm pinned between it and the wall. Ten minutes or so in, and the title card flashes on-screen. Set your

The initial moments of Aron's attempts to free himself may be the only seconds of the film that work, the hand-held camera shuddering with every shove and grunt he makes attempting to pry his hand out from beneath the stone. It captures a feeling of helplessness, claustrophobia and the dread of morbid realization more acutely than anything else in the 85 or so minutes left in the film's running time. Never again does it so viscerally take hold of emotions, nor even does it find the same encroaching feeling of the walls closing in, though one would normally expect such moods to enhance as time wears on.

Even at 97 minutes, 127 Hours is a bit long for a story that can be essentially summarized as, "Man gets trapped, stays there a few days, cuts off arm, Fin." To keep the audience's attention, he throws every trick he's ever learned into the mix. Water deprivation leads to reveries, then outright hallucinations, on Aron's part. Apropos of the aesthetic curbs from music videos and commercials, Aron's fantasies of liquid refreshment contain such product placement that one wonders why any of these companies let their stuff get shown. What odd marketing strategy is Pepsi devising for Mountain Dew now? (The lack of capitalization on Snickers' "Need a Moment?" campaign was a missed opportunity, though.)

These fantasies are themselves dull and distracting, but their worst contribution is the annihilation of the mood Boyle managed to capture in seconds, that desperate isolation and fear. Having gone along willingly, gleefully, with his previous films, I would easily have fit into the film's cramped groove had it bothered to stay with it for even a moment. But hell no; if it's not a fantasy devised as commercial, it's a mad morning talk show playing out entirely in Aron's head. Perhaps there's a commentary in here on the depth to which pop culture has invaded our thought process, to the point that even an unspooling brain can regurgitate nuggets of entertainment-infused semi-coherence, but the truth is likely no more complex than Boyle wanting to dump out the contents of his own mind onto Ralston.

To be sure, Aron is Boyle's ultimate stand-in, a brash, cocksure young man who is so smart he does not always realize how stupid he can be. (Not even Jake Cole, erstwhile committed fan of Mr. Boyle, would go out of his way to defend The Beach.) Aron loves to film himself, unburdening himself of being accountable with another party present but damned sure to bring back something he can use to brag to others with. His loopy, obnoxious playfulness can be charming when kept on a tether, but at his worst he comes off as a simpering child. Even at his best, Boyle has always flirted with this side of his own personality, and the biggest delight of Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire, in this writer's opinion, is the manner in which he veers ahead of his flaws to maintain the giddier aspect of his boyishness. But this, this is interminable. I felt guilty for looking upon a man forced to drink his own urine and stare at his putrefying arm as a whiny brat, but not even the endlessly charming James Franco could salvage Boyle's self-portrait of the Dorian Gray variety.

Careening from arduous pacing to attention-deficit, bordering on epileptic frenzy with all the flow of a sputtering faucet, 127 Hours employs so many tricks that it never places faith in its own material, much less the audience to invest emotionally in Aron's plight. Ralston routinely checks his watch as he tracks how long he's been in the crevasse. Sometimes, hours pass in the blink of an eye; in other moments, Aron comes out of his torpor, only to find that mere seconds have elapsed. One sympathizes. By a certain point, I found myself thinking, "Oh, just cut you arm off already. How much more must I suffer?"

Boyle makes the film a grueling ordeal, but never in the manner it should be. The material does not lend itself to cinema, but Boyle trusts Ralston's story less than it deserves. He frames the actual narrative as one of pure inspiration, not a hard-won determination that arises from Ralston's actual story but a lump of incoherent flashbacks and visions that suddenly dump into one of the sleaziest, exploitative "uplifting" endings I've ever seen. A.R. Rahman's score is bombastic, intrusive and nearly as clumsy as Boyle's direction, which is almost an accomplishment. Whenever Franco, the lone bright spot in the film, if an overhyped one, starts to convey a genuine panic and a creeping sense of resignation, Rahman's score forces the point, destroying any subtlety, any humanity, that might have taken root.

At least Boyle captures some aspects of the story that stuck out when I first heard it on a news documentary some years back. The real Ralston discussed the ordeal and mentioned the first time he plunged his dull knife into his crushed hand and heard a terrible hiss of escaping gas. Boyle preserves that, though that horrible sound is frustratingly buried in numerous other sounds. Also, Ralston's mention of cutting through the nerve cluster, frustratingly the one part of his arm that still worked, sent shivers down my spine when he related it. Boyle both honors and bungles that moment as well, using an electronic, crackling feedback to suggest pain where he never did before. But there are simply no stakes in the entire amputation, no build-up to the moment where a man decides to maim himself to live. Boyle's Aron simply wallows around in a hallucinatory stupor, and then he suddenly gets to work hacking off that arm, as if to say, "Oh to hell with it, there's a new CSI on tonight."

Nothing in 127 Hours couldn't be said by a PSA featuring Smokey the Bear or some other equivalent wildlife mascot. "Hey kids, Climby the Mountain Goat says don't go hiking without a buddy and an emergency beacon! Not telling people where you're going is a baaaah-d idea!" It has the temerity to beat up its audience for 90 minutes, then tell them they should feel helpful. A "where are they now?" credit at the end suggested that the recurring vision of a child that appeared before Aron, the vision that motivated him to keep going, came true when he married years later and had a son just this year. I'm sure we're supposed to be touched by this moment, but the clumsiness of saying "Aron's premonition came true" when he eventually had a son (that most likely did not look like the one he envisioned, is indicative of the lazy stabs Boyle makes. If I had a dream about making a sandwich and eventually made one, I wouldn't believe in the power of the subconscious.

For a film receiving so much acclaim, I was surprised, if pleased, to note that the general audience reaction matched my own. As people shuffled out of the theater, they remarked to each other how glad they were it was over. Not that they'd been drained, that they felt Aron Ralston's story. They were just happy to be able to leave. Maybe that is the entire point of 127 Hours, to punish its audience until they want to tear off their own limbs to get away. But the sheer, unrelenting boredom surely could not have been the manner in which he intended to torment us. All his worst ideas, from his scatalogical fetish (a "urine cam" showing stowed waste being sucked down for nourishment is especially heinous) to his ill-advised use of flashbacks, are presented without the goofy, gonzo charm that normally balances them out. I have embraced Boyle's spastic rhythms before, and I imagine I shall again, but 127 Hours is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've had in a long time, not because of its grueling material but because of its abhorrent, exploitative, manipulative and hypocritical nonsense. Perhaps I can take a leaf from Boyle's erratic style and shift suddenly from pleonastic scribbling to more direct terms: Fuck this movie. The end.


  1. Wow. There is no way you and I watched the same movie.

  2. Maybe so. I don't think any of Boyle's humor was wry or clever, that his spastic filmmaking was "energetic" or anything else the supporters have said about the film. I tried to divorce myself from my reaction to see what others saw in it, but I honestly came up with nothing. Not only is the freneticism ill-fitting, it's actually dull! This fucking movie took an eternity! Is this the same man who made such fleet work of Slumdog Millionaire? (The more consistent Boyle critics scream, "Yes, you idiot. About time you joined us," but I am not yet ready to be a member of their party.)

    As I said in the review, the only times I wasn't bored were when I was offended by its tastelessness. I spent a month trying to free up the time to drive the hour to see this, and I was damn ready to love it. But this was vile from the word "go."

  3. Alright, let's start here:

    You don't like the film's freneticism. How vile and boring would the alternative be? Had the film locked off the camera and just been a document of Ralston's effort to get free, things would have become very dull in a hurry.

  4. It is possible to get inside someone's head without turning it into a Mountain Dew ad. Subjectivity is not necessarily a leap into fractured dreamspace. The only moments of the film that work are when Boyle stops interfering and lets Franco meditate, but those moments never even last a full minute before we're off a running again. The arrangement and bombardment of Aron's visions doesn't show us his addled thought process lead to his ultimate decision. Franco could have carried this, if given the chance. He could even have lapsed into totally believable madness from dehydration that could be conveyed with style. But Boyle never takes us on an emotional journey as a man readies himself to do the unthinkable. He just pisses around for 90 minutes then gets down to it.

    I'm telling you, I really wanted to like this, and I didn't think I'd even need to will myself into doing so. I'm a big Boyle fan, and I was fascinated by Ralston's story. I'm not someone who went in looking to snipe and bicker over minor details, because if I can justify the entire third act of Sunshine, I could sure as hell stick up for some moments that don't work. But I could count on one hand the number of things that are pulled off here, and none are constants. They're fleeting teases of a movie that could be entertaining and respectful toward the story, of which this is neither. No one else seemed to like it either though I've never used crowd reaction as a serious barometer for quality. I can only speak for myself, and I loathed it.

  5. Yeah, I believe that you wanted to like this...but that might actually have been part of the problem. You wanted to like it too much and came in with a lot of preconceived notions.

    I think the arrangement of his thought process actually leads us towards his decision quite well. He begins methodically...assesing what he has to work with. Then the hyperactive ideas kick in when he starts to pine for what he's missing - food, water, various brands of beer and soda. Eventually dehydration starts creeping in which is when he starts talking to himself. And finally the gravity of the situation takes over which is when he really starts to see his life past and present flashing before his eyes.

    The mental progression is all there, and those digressions are what helps to make a very static and claustrophobic story a rather energetic movie with scope.

  6. Well. I certainly understand an objection to Boyle's style, which I found overbearing while also thinking that it worked more often than not ... My biggest annoyance might have been the use of the song "Lovely Day," which made no sense at all. But all that said ... I've seen it three times now and boring was certainly not an emotion I ever felt. Interesting. The shots at the opening aren't about arms ... They're about civilization, the hustle and bustle that Aron runs from and then gratefully stumbles back to. Works for me. Which brings me to the end ... Exactly what is sleazy about it? I'm missing that connection.

  7. The gaudiness of the moment, the lack of earned payoff made the faux-inspirational quality of Boyle's view of Ralston's story struck me as perverse. He tortured Ralston, and the audience, for 90 minutes in a way totally separate from the actual torment of the scenario, and then he acted like we were supposed to feel liberated and grateful for the experience. I was so disgusted by that point (and not even with The Scene) that I wanted to tear out my eyes when that triumphant music swelled.

    I think your interpretation of the opening is valid and probably what Boyle was going for, but so many of the shots -- swimmers' arms, a man waving, the crowd doing the wave -- put forward the connotation, as if dropping the hint of the price he was about to pay for running out to the wilderness.

    It certainly looked, great, I'll grant, when it wasn't bounding into those damn flashbacks. But I reached a point where I got so tired of the edits and tricks that I just shut down and could glean no remote entertainment value from the picture. It's weird, too, because I love me some freneticism; 127 Hours isn't nearly as much of a clusterfuck as, say, Natural Born Killers or any modern Tony Scott movie (if Boyle tweaked it by that much, he might have made an experience similar to Scott brilliant yet also emotional Déjà Vu), and yet I hated this. I think it just alienated me instantly and only got worse as it went on. And the more it tried to win me the more I turned against it for trying so hard. Perhaps if it put down any kind of emotional bedrock I might have been willing to play along, but Boyle took a gamble in giving us just enough of Aron to make us be kind of irritated him before trapping him, then doing nothing to really change him. A pity; I had looked forward to this for months.

  8. OK, that's twice you've mentioned it, so I have to point out the misconception:

    The montage at the beginning isn't supposed to bring your attention to people's hands (which might be the most inappropriate concept to start a film like this).

    The montage is supposed to bring your attention to the way people gather. The way people move and surround themselves with other people...whether it's to commute, to party, to watch a sporting event. That opening sequence is supposed to plant the seed that we are a species that gathers.

    Aron, on the other hand, is a person who isolates. He ignores his family, he doesn't tell anyone what he's doing at a given moment, and goes off into God's country to bike, climb, swim, and camp alone.

    Counter to that opening montage, he's a person who doesn't think that he needs to be around anyone else...and that is a big piece of what led him to this point.

  9. Jason beat you to it, Hatter. It's a valid point, but one undercut by Boyle's obnoxiousness. Aron's own desire to show off also contrasts with his sense of isolation, as I said. He likes to go it alone, but only so he can later return and show people he did. He's not the same as Christopher McCandless; he wants to be out in nature as much as possible but come back and impress people. To say that his personality is isolationist is not entirely correct.

  10. However, to head this small part of the argument off at the pass, let me just say that you have both argued the opening extremely well and, having been genuinely curious what grabbed others about this film, I'm glad that I can step outside my own reaction to gauge how you see it. What I'm about to say will sound bitchy, but know that it is not directed at either of you but the film: Thanks to you guys, I can now tolerate four of the film's 97 minutes. I still don't like them, but this is a great point of view.

    And that's something, and it's a breath of fresh air from some of the lazier texts and Twitter messages sent my way from friends and evens strangers. It's been too long since I've had a good disagreement on this blog, and I forgot how invigorating it can be when it's respectful and illuminating. So, and I mean this, thank you both. But if you guys can win me over to the Clemence Poesy flashbacks (not her specifically, just what her character was supposed to symbolize), then I'm sending you two to Israel to sort out the two-state solution.

  11. "It's been too long since I've had a good disagreement on this blog, and I forgot how invigorating it can be when it's respectful and illuminating."

    That's what makes you such a rewarding blogger. And I know how you feel. As I implied in my first post, I see lots of reasons to object to 127 Hours, most significantly: Boyle's flourishes and the film's graphic nature. But "boring" wasn't something I expected, and even though this movie is in my top 10 for the year, I enjoy reading your alternate take.

    It occurred to me this morning that one of the things that's explicit in your review and mine is our very different angles of approach: you were looking forward to this movie, while I went into it expecting that it couldn't possibly work, that indeed it would be boring to watch a guy sit pinned by a rock for the better part of 90 minutes. Obvious the film is what it is, but I'm sure our opposing reactions have something to do with our expectations.

    As for the flashbacks, some thoughts ...

    * The one that irks me most is the flash flood hallucination, precisely because it goes on for so long that I started to wonder if in fact it wasn't a hallucination but the real thing. I'm fine with it being there, but Boyle goes way over the top with that one.

    * The runner up in most irksome would be the "premonition" scene -- mainly because I've never liked the whole hologram vision thing; it's a dream cliche that doesn't actually feel in any way rooted in reality (by which I mean, I've never personally imagined a transparent apparition in front of me). And the use of the Dido song is, what's the word, dorky. Yep, that's it. (Also: I agree with you that the title at the end suggesting that Ralston's "premonition" came true is also dorky at best and plain stupid at worst. You're right there, if perhaps a little too worked up about it. I kid. I kid.)

    * But I liked the flashbacks that included Clemence Poesy, perhaps, per your previous comment, because I like her. And, given that the theme of the movie is about Ralston's shunning of society, she plays a significant figure: she's the closest Aron has come to letting someone in. So it's only natural that a guy who thinks he's going to die because of his own self-centeredness would reflect back on a kind of make-or-break point in his life when he had the opportunity to connect with someone.

  12. Switching topics then, the final moment crushes me. I love the use of Sigur Ros' "Festival" -- LOVE IT -- as Ralston stumbles back into the world. That crushes me. And it's here that maybe I should acknowledge that I felt I had some insight to that scene. No, I've never been through anything like what Ralston went through, but I have run three marathons (one of the crowd shots Boyle employs, by the way) and in those final miles it's such a struggle to put one foot in front of the other, and yet at the same time there's that deep yearning to move forward -- it's like you want to stop and then want to do anything but stop. And that's what I felt in Ralston's final walk.

    As for the tortured part: As I said in my review, frankly, I thought it was underplayed. I mean, the dude was trapped by a boulder for five days and hacked off his arm. Boyle could have made it much darker. What I like about the film -- and I realize you'll struggle to relate to this -- is that he makes us feel the toll of those long days without making this some 2.5 hour epic of screaming and anguish and boredom.

  13. See, I really like Clemence Poesy too, and I knew exactly what she was there for, but I just think Boyle took an idea that could have been brilliant and meaningful just became so overused that I just felt he was desperately padding for time. The only one I felt worked, even though it was the most on the nose, was their break-up scene.

    I agree with you on the flash flood. It's obvious when it starts really flooding that it's a dream, and it's obvious to everyone that it's a dream, but then it goes on for, what, four or five minutes? It's just overkill and if Boyle had shortened the idea to simply him dreaming of getting free and more quickly getting to Poesy, it could have worked.

    I think I've overstated the degree to which I was looking forward to this film. I simply went in as a fan of Boyle's and Franco's and, considering the love it got even from some who typically hate Boyle, I thought for sure I'd like it. I wasn't going in there with super-inflated expectations, and when those lights went down I cleared my head anyway.

    I don't like the term "overdirected" because I think it's a lazy write-off for those who would actually want something stuffy. I don't think it was wrong to stylize Ralston's story, in general terms; like I said, those hand-held shots that shudder and stumble around when he first gets trapped are so absolutely brilliant that I instantly felt that mixture of panic, bewilderment and instant denial going through Aron's head. But when Boyle actually went inside Ralston's thoughts, my issue was not that he put hallucinations on screen but that those hallucinations only ever felt like excuses for him to pull some tricks rather than convey Aron's thought process with full energy.

    That, far more than whatever expectations I might have had, is what sank the movie for me. Once I fell out of its rhythm, which I did almost instantly, I could never get back in, and the more I kept beating the door trying to get in, the more frustrated, then furious, I got. All I could see was Danny Boyle directing, not Aron Ralston struggling. I don't think it needed to be some 2.5 hour glacial drama where Aron looked over and saw Death and a bunch of Swedish people dancing their way into the afterlife and maybe had a game of chess or two, but I just feel like Boyle so instantly made it about him that I found myself bored by what should have been a visceral and moving experience.

  14. All I could see was Danny Boyle directing, not Aron Ralston struggling.

    Substitute "Sofia Coppola" for "Danny Boyle" and "Johnny Marco" for "Aron Ralston" in that sentence and you've got my reaction to Somewhere -- which is a different kind of "overdirected."

    P.S. It doesn't work for you when Poesy stares into the camera and says, "I love you"? What's wrong with you!? :)

  15. Just to put it out there: That premonition is Aron Rolston's own words; he, himself, believes that the child he saw down there was a premonition of his own forthcoming one. I'm not a believer in the supernatural or anything but it's Aron's story, it's his experiences and assumptions, and I guess it was a sort of compromise to include "his premonition came true" in the end, since they excluded the recorded scenes where James Franco's Aron is praying to God (which the actual Aron did on several occations during his ordeal). It could've been a complete and ugly religious mess, and thus ultimataly arbitrary - I'm glad it didn't truned out that way. Excellent film overall. Boyle's definitive best.

  16. To me all those scenes of people going about their daily business showed that even though you are dying life goes on, you are not the centre of the universe...Rolston has said and it was mentioned in the film that he was a very selfish man...The original poster obviously has no clue about GOOD film...Danny Boyle is not Hollywood and never will be...Go see the Michael Bay shit you are accustomed too =)

  17. This movie was excellent...

    "The original poster obviously has no clue about GOOD film...Danny Boyle is not Hollywood and never will be...Go see the Michael Bay shit you are accustomed too =)"

  18. Completely agree with your analysis. The level of smugness that Franco exhibits simply render his character arrogant and at the same time ridiculous.