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Austin Film Festival 2010 Review: 127 HOURS

Brian Kelley

by: Brian Kelley
November 4th, 2010

Rating: 4/5

Writers: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, Aron Ralston (book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place")
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: James FrancoAmber Tamblyn and Kate Mara

Horror films are designed to cause panic, dread, and fear in the viewer. The origins of these feelings can be in the everyday, the mundane, or in the supernatural. In the broadest sense, the label can be applied to a wide number of films not generally considered "horror films." Such is the case with Danny Boyle's new film 127 HOURS. On the surface, it does not appear to be one, but when examined with the most basic elements of such films in mind, it becomes clear that 127 HOURS is one of the best horror films of the year.

Aron Ralston (James Franco), an avid outdoorsman, has set out to Blue John Canyon for a weekend of hiking, biking and, as it turns out, perhaps a little partying. He encounters two women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who he leads on a mini-tour of the lesser known spots of the canyon. This is the only interaction (outside of brief flashbacks) we see between Aron and others. After parting ways and promising to meet up with the ladies at a party later, Aron continues to hike the canyon. His adventure is cut short, though, when a boulder slips and pins his arm against a canyon wall, trapping him in a ravine. Aron's shouts are futile, he's given nobody his itinerary and Megan and Kristi are long gone. He's left with only a video camera, a small amount of water, and an off-brand multi-purpose tool with a dull knife.

Danny Boyle combines almost every trick he has established in the past 15 years to try and elevate the true story material to something greater and more meaningful. He mostly succeeds. A dangerously loud and kinetically edited intro sees the use of split screen to setup Aron's preparation and departure for Blue John Canyon. The audience is helpless against this masterful combination - heart rates elevate. Aron's initial ride into isolation is a joyous occasion, as is his brief time spent with Megan and Kristi. Immediately after they part ways, though, things take a darker turn. There is an important shot just before Aron descends into the ravine that will eventually trap him, a closeup of his fingers caressing the canyon wall - it is almost erotic. Aron has a deep love and respect for nature and it is about to turn on him and this is where the horror begins to seep through.

Once the accident occurs and Aron is trapped, things switch gears into panic mode very quickly. Not surprisingly, he doesn't immediately stop to assess his situation, instead choosing to think he can pull his arm free or move the rock. Once he settles in though, the horror of the situation becomes clear. Much like the xenomorphs in ALIENS, the rock is an unwitting villain, not choosing to be evil but malicious by its nature and interaction with something/someone with which it cannot have a relationship, and Boyle deftly personifies it as such. Aron forms an understanding, albeit begrudgingly, with his situation and the boulder that is keeping him in it and only then can he truly assess the horror of his predicament.

Dread takes over and some of Franco's best moments of the film (and of his career) are found in this portion of the film. Aside from very brief flashbacks that establish various relationships (including that with his nature-loving father played by Treat Williams) he expects to leave behind when he dies, Franco carries the entire film. His work here is impeccable, each beat of his confusion, anger, frustration, pain, and fear played mostly by precise facial expressions. He does have several moments of interaction with his flashbacks-cum-hallucinations and his videocamera which allow Franco to fully flesh out his one man show. These are also some of the most intense portions of the film, as this is where the true desperation bred from fear is established and the momentum towards the climax is built. Even those not familiar with the Aron Ralston story will have an idea where things are going and it is truly scary stuff.

Boyle pulls off almost non-stop tension, some sly moments of necessary, character-based humor, and works with Franco to keep what is essentially a single-character piece interesting - but there are still some issues. The main problem is with the flimsy framing structure of the movie, the shots of mobs of people coming and going in their daily lives. If Boyle has a message about these people, the rest of humanity, that ties in with Aron and his struggle it's either not clear enough or way too obvious and ham-fisted to matter much (after much consideration, the latter seems like a better assessment). Regardless, it doesn't quite work the way one suspects Boyle and screenwriter Beaufoy imagined. Secondly, there are several moments where Aron reflects on the people he is leaving behind and makes it clear he places most of the blame of the situation on himself and his being selfish in those relationships. While it is true the filmmakers are working from first person source material and this most likely exactly how Aron felt during those days he was trapped, the way this character depth is worked into the script unfortunately serves to undercut some of the tension at spots. Fortunately, these are minor gripes that only momentarily distract from the full-fledged terror on screen.

The Aron Ralston story has been around for seven years now through news reports, interviews, his book and TV specials- most everyone has been exposed to the facts of the incident. Danny Boyle smartly saw the opportunity to make a tense, fear-filled movie-going experience while honoring Ralston and his ordeal. The result is excellent. Despite some a few minor quibbles, 127 HOURS is one of the most terrifying 94 minutes one can spend in the theater this year. While it is also a story with a lot of heart, one that eventually proves itself (in some ever so slightly cheesy ways) uplifting, by turning the frightful facts into audience empathy it is also deserves, and proudly wears, the label of horror.

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