127 Hours 2011 UK/USA
Directed by Danny Boyle
Playing at UK cinemas now.
Spoiler Warning: Um... Hang on a minute... isn’t that a bit like having a spoiler warning on Titanic? You already know the bloody ship’s going to sink on that one (so I never bothered watching it) and I suspect you probably already know the true life story behind this movie too... unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so... or, you know, trapped under it.
There’s a bit in the new movie by Danny Boyle, the famously successful British director of such respected movies as the zombie-tribute flick 28 Days Later, where he uses piercing sound to stand in as a direct link for the intensity of pain being felt as our intrepid real life hero Aron Ralston (played here unbearably but charmingly upbeat by actor James Franco) cuts through a big red tendon in his arm, which he’s already had to break the bone on so he can amputate said limb, with a lot more pain and anguish than in any of those old movies where make-do-and-mend bomb defusers had to make a choice as to whether they should cut the red wire or not.
This goes right back to silent movies when such metaphors were often thrown in for sound but expressed in visual metaphors to push their point home and while Franco was going through paroxyms of painful expressions (and doing it pretty well actually... he’s becoming a fine actor which is a big surprise for me) I couldn’t help but think of both the genius of German Expressionism/ Hollywood Noir director Fritz Lang and those two simmering surrealists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. Because they represent two obvious examples of directors using visual metaphor to push a point and the two specific examples I remembered while watching the action on screen were these two...
In Metropolis, Lang uses shafts of light coming from big metal sirens to suggest the wailing of factory worker shift changes in a most effective manner (if memory is serving me right). Similarly in Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, the buzzer of a front door being sounded is vibrantly shown by the juxtaposition of a pair of hands shaking up a cocktail as a stand in for... well noise. These points are used to demonstrate how the director of, so called, silent movies would use one tool in his visual armour to conjure up the idea of something that was just plain unavailable to him within budgetary and historically technical restrictions.
The other thing this made me think of was Darren Aranofsky, who did exactly the same thing that Boyle has done here in his brilliant debut feature Pi. In one of the more abstract scenes in that little masterpiece of a movie, the main protagonist finds a brain wrapped in paper on a subway station. Everytime he pokes at the brain with a pencil a shrill sound like a drill (presumably anticipating the end of the movie... but I shan’t give that away if you’ve not seen this particular slice of celluloid wonderful) pierces the soundtrack and he cringes in pain which is relieved only when he stops poking said internal organ.
This is exactly what Boyle has done with the sound to pain metaphor in 127 Hours... just as a silent director had no real sound to work with, Boyle and Aranofsky similarly use metaphor to express pain, which is unavailable to them as a real phenomenon of the movies they are making (so far... anyone want to predict when we will having the “painies” coming along in the same way we had the “talkies”). Regular readers of my column may well remember my disappointment, just a few weeks ago, with Aranofsky’s new movie Black Swan which I found dull, un-edgy and frankly unable to make me feel anything on an emotional level. But I got a little hit of the early genius brand of Aranofsky in Boyle’s latest which, despite the odds, manages to take a simple tale of a man getting stuck between a rock and a hard place... um... a bigger rock... and cutting his arm off with an inadequate instrument, seem a lot less duller than it sounds through the use of dynamic and possibly overwrought but certainly spectacular editing techniques and visual ideas which serve to give what you would expect to be a lesson in long, drawn out cinematography a large, adrenalin fuelled shot in the arm... if, indeed, you have at least one arm left to receive said adrenalin shot.
The real guy who did this extraordinary thing is never really treated with anything other than respect by the film-makers and you certainly get the impression that Ralston is definitely the kind of guy that you would want to hang around with in your local pub. This is true even during the sequence where Ralston is remonstrating with himself and taking the piss out of himself (in one of his more sober moments free from the sequences of hard-Boyled delirium that help to give this movie a break-neck pace)... yes, you know he’s been really stupid to get himself in such a jam where nobody else has any idea of where he is and with no sense of rescue... but that does nothing to diminish the courageous and more likable qualities of the character as he appears on screen and one can hope that the off-screen Ralston is as inspiring as his on-screen counterpart which is given a huge (huge!) lift by Franco’s performance.
So there you go... the pacing is jarring and fragmentary... cutting between long establishing-style shots looking at the natural beauty of the rocky terrain and fast-paced, fast-edited bouts of delirium fuelled dreams of events past and future from Ralstons life. I wouldn’t watch this one again (no DVD sale for me) but it is a really fine movie, highlighting that Boyle, unlike some other directors, is still very much at the top of his game and a cinematic artist worthy of your time and attention. Definitely one to watch... if only once.