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 timers...now.
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.