Dir. Danny Boyle
(2010, R, 94 min)
★ ★ ★

Danny Boyle is an effective filmmaker who perhaps knows a little too well that he’s an effective filmmaker. Sometimes his effects veer into self-consciousness. That is the case in 127 Hours, his followup to his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a film that demands the guiding hand of a strong and confident director, taking place as it does in a single setting for most of its running time: the canyon where adventuring hiker Aron Ralston was trapped for nearly a week in 2003 before amputating his own arm to escape. Boyle’s flourishes work when they evoke Ralston’s mental state, but did we really need POV shots from inside his water bottle?

The film, based on Ralston’s autobiographical book, begins in the rocky canyons of Utah, where Aron (James Franco) encounters a pair of lost young travelers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara). They don’t know what to make of him, but he wins them over with his energy and charm and leads them into a bright underground pond. The girls are ecstatic, but when they part ways they make an astute observation: “I don’t think we figured in his day at all.”

The real Aron Ralston

They are the last people Aron sees before he stumbles into a narrow crevice where his arm is trapped under a fallen boulder. He regards this at first with annoyance, then with ingenuity, and after about a day the fear settles in. He turns on his video camera to document his struggle; the camera helps keep him focused, but he also wants to leave a record for whoever might find his body.

Boyle’s film best succeeds at getting into Ralston’s mind as it descends through despair, mania, and hallucinations. Some scenes reminded me of Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which also used expressive sounds and imagery to explore the inner life of a trapped man. In one of the most moving, Aron interviews himself on an imagined talk show, where he bitterly chastises himself for his irresponsibility while an invisible audience laughs and cheers.

There are a few other great, memorable scenes like that. However, they do not have the cumulative effect of a great film. We see Aron’s life flash before his eyes in bits and pieces over the course of his six days in peril, and the scenes themselves are fairly ordinary, though visually and emotionally amplified by Boyle to good effect: he had a lover he let go of perhaps too soon, a sister about to get married, parents who seem loving. But in this parade of images, where do we find Aron, the events that shaped him, the spark that ignited his thrill-seeking? As a character, he inherently lacks the tortured-soul psychology that made the similarly reckless subjects of Into the Wild and Grizzly Man so compelling, but there must be something about the man that can be illuminated by his traumatic ordeal. We learn about the events of his life, but Aron himself remained a mystery to me.

In conveying Ralson’s isolation and desperation, the film succeeds, but I left wanting something deeper. Despite his horrifying accident, we learn, Aron continues to seek thrills, having apparently only learned that he should call his mother from time to time. And always leave a note.