You know, it's a terrible thing to have to confess, seeing as he's practically been crowned the modern-day answer to Michael Powell, but more often than not I just don't get Danny Boyle films. Even 28 Days Later, which is probably my favourite from the oeuvre, isn't something I fully appreciated the first time I watched it. This isn't a very fashionable thing to admit to, but normally I'd rather see a film starring Jason Statham than one directed by Danny Boyle.
Alas, my man J's latest opus, The Mechanic, hasn't shown up in Oxford yet - no Machete, and now no Mechanic, clearly the local film-bookers don't appreciate knuckle-headed action movies - and so I went to see Boyle's 127 Hours instead. This is another of those films gathering a bit of a buzz ahead of the awards season, so it has to have something about it, right?
James Franco plays Aron Ralston, in the true story of what happens to people who go outdoors by themselves. Ralston starts the film as an energetic and rather annoyingly cocky young man who opts to spend his weekend canyoning in a remote part of Utah. Unfortunately, he has a bit of a slip and ends up with his arm pinned under a rock, with very limited supplies, no contact with the rest of the world and the knowledge that he hasn't told anyone where he is and can't expect rescue. After 127 hours - see what they did there? - he uses a penknife to hack his arm off at the elbow and walks back to get some no-doubt urgently-required medical assistance.
Sorry if I spoiled the movie for you there. Everyone knows where this film is going, surely? Certainly my own experience of it was tinted from the start by my anticipation of what was going to happen: Something Bad was going to happen to Franco's character, which would eventually lead to him doing Something Arguably Even Worse to himself.
Except it isn't quite like that in the end. The sequences before and after the canyon are really just an extended prologue and epilogue to the meat of the film, which is Franco, his arm trapped, trying to come to terms with what's happening and find a way out. It's one character, with very limited mobility, in the same location for most of this film.
My issue with Danny Boyle as a director is his over-fondness for intrusive stylistic and cinematographic fireworks. When this suits the particular story he's telling, the results can be extraordinary, but all too often he seems to be cramming them in just because he likes them, not because they're appropriate to the subject-matter. Luckily, this story is crying out for that sort of thing. Even so, Boyle is relatively restrained and doesn't go too far down the route of out-of-canyon dream sequences and flashbacks - instead, doing things like sticking the camera in odd places, such as inside Franco's water bottle and so on.
Franco himself is excellent. In the past I have occasionally been sniffy about some of his performances ('looks like he has wind throughout' was, I believe, my considered opinion of his turn in Tristan + Isolde), but he's utterly mesmeric here. Very quickly he wins your sympathy entirely, especially as he comes to realise what his predicament says about him as a person, and the final moments, where - his former shell of cocky independence in smithereens - he cries out desperately for help from strangers, are desperately moving.
Somewhere in there, of course, is the arm-hacking-off moment, which I for one enjoyed with my teeth clamped firmly around the strap of my backpack. It's a deeply, deeply harrowing thing to watch, and Boyle doesn't shy away from the full queasy ick of it. That said, the film does manage the remarkable feat of taking you to a place where Ralston's decision seems wholly rational and you can even imagine yourself doing the same thing - self-mutilation really does seem like the least worst option in the situation.
While it doesn't feature a balding ex-diver with a wandering accent taking off his shirt and kicking people in, 127 Hours is still a superb movie. It reminded me a lot of Touching The Void, another almost-unbelievable tale of human survival against the odds. The story is unforgettable, the direction does it full justice, and there's a monumental performance from the lead actor. One to watch and marvel at, while you're resolving never to set foot out of your house alone again.