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54th BFI London Film Festival: 127 Hours

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring James Franco, Treat Williams

Tense? Anxious? Claustrophobic? Whatever you do, don’t think a trip to the cinema will alleviate these ailments as the last few weeks has seen a morbid fixation on a lingering demise, whether it be death by suffocation (Buried), death by refrigeration (Frozen), or in the case of Danny Boyles bombastic new film, death by dehydration – 127 Hours. Charting the horrific experience of adrenaline junkie Aron Ralston, whose arm became trapped under a boulder after a freak climbing accident out in the remote Utah badlands, 127 Hours charts the almost superhuman feat of endurance that he suffered for five days with dwindling food and water, with no prospect of rescue as no-one knew where he was. As his discomfort intensifies, Aron takes to recording his grim experience with his handy camcorder, a potential final will and testament to his friends and family. As the hours evaporate and his provisions decay, Aron begins to understand that there is only one way out.

From its dizzying split screen opening 127 Hours revels in Boyle’s atypical histrionic style, a vivid whir of the speed and vibrancy of modern life – commuters exiting stations, vehicles shrieking down expressways, a Koyaanisqatsi-influenced montage split across a trio of bisecting panels, all scored to a pounding techno score to set the scene of intensity of experience, of thrill seeking. and perhaps a slight aversion to modern technological life.  As the film moves to Aron’s explorations of the Utah wilderness the azure blues of the Arizona skies contrast with the Neolithic browns and yellows of the ancient and impersonal stone that hover over Aaron’s gruesome ordeal, considering the film credits two cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak (who both operated to provide a dual level of coverage) this is evidently a film with a carefully graded and considered colour scheme. Where Buried and Frozen were content to constrain their action to their victims immediate vicinity, Boyle expands the canvass to incorporate flashbacks, hallucinations and fictional flights of fancy, all generated by Aron’s increasingly delusional mental state. This opens up not only Aron’s history and our sympathy for his plight, but also makes us question if we could muster the bravery and strength to follow that final, grisly route to escape.

The now notorious extraction scene is as unpleasant as you’ve probably heard but not exploitative; it’s suitably shocking and painful, but the camera doesn’t linger for any rubbernecking purpose, preferring to alleviate the stress with a little joke from Aron’s perspective once the deed is done. James Franco provides a suitably charming then distressingly intense performance, a recital culled from numerous discussions and consultations with the real Aron and most crucially his viewing of the real video diary that Aron recorded as he effectively faced his imminent death. Boyle seems to be inspired by the trials and tribulations of various youth subcultures, be it the backpacking culture of The Beach, the slum children of Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire, or the Edinburgh heroin scene in Trainspotting, his energy and enthusiasm seem to burst on screen with an optimistic vigour that only the young allegedly hold. In any case, 127 Hours is a giddy testament to the strength of human endurance, regardless of your vintage.  

John McEntee