An adaptation of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Ralston’s true account of having his arm lodged beneath a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon, Boyle’s interpretation relies perhaps a little too heavily on the built-in adjectives like ‘harrowing’ and ‘powerful;’ he doesn’t seem to add many of his own. The film is certainly more successful than this year’s “Buried,” in which Ryan Reynolds spends the entirety of a film trapped inside a coffin in Iraq, but then Ryan Reynolds is no James Franco.
Franco’s multifaceted performance really anchors the film and keeps it from becoming stagnant. The journey of his character, from devil-may-care adventurer to anguished prisoner, is kept in constant motion even though he is physically immobile. Franco embraces not only what makes Ralston heroic, but also what makes him human, and we need that accessibility in order to participate in the film’s more brutal moments.
And Boyle definitely doesn’t disappoint in the intensity department. More so than any filmmaker in recent memory, he commands attention with his unflinching depictions of violence here. On the off chance that some aren’t yet familiar with the outcome of Ralston’s story, I won’t spoil it—suffice it to say “127 Hours” is not for the squeamish. I consider myself among a generation of roundly desensitized moviegoers, but the way Boyle puts the screws to his audience during key sequences is undeniably affecting. Expect to do a fair amount of squinting and inhaling through gritted teeth.
I only wish the film on the whole had the same impact as those isolated scenes. Boyle cobbles together what little conventional narrative he can from the five day ordeal, but it never fully ensnares. Flashbacks seem like a given, though the brief instances of escape we witness via dream or memory aren’t especially interesting until they began mingling with Ralston’s increasingly distorted reality. Even still, I’d argue Boyle doesn’t dig deep enough into Ralston’s deteriorating mental state—merely explaining the emotional impetus for his physical actions is about as far as he goes.
Part of the problem may be the visual experimentation Boyle implements in the interest of keeping things fresh. It serves that purpose fine—“127 Hours” is a lively, energetic film in spite of its subject matter. In a way, however, the triptych music video approach feels like Boyle taking the easy way out. After all, the man is a master of genres; a greater feat might have been to capture the quiet desolation and solemnity of Ralston’s trip through equally inauspicious filmmaking. It would never have been as exciting a film, but it might have been a better one.
Don’t get me wrong, “127 Hours” is still a terrific accomplishment, and one for which Boyle and Franco deserve joint recognition. It feels like a minor entry into the esteemed director’s oeuvre, but the creative decisions he made (fault them though I might) showcase his ever-innovative eye for shooting and editing. The visceral impact of the images he conveys is unquestionably the foremost strength of this film, and it is that aspect that critics have already lauded and audiences will doubtless remember.
The effectiveness of such scenes earn “127 Hours” an adjective like ‘harrowing.’ I just can’t quite bring myself to call it powerful.