In movies nothing good ever happens on a mountain unless you’re Julie Andrews and then good things happen to you everywhere.
There’s Kevin MacDonald’s documentary “Touching the Void” about a mountain-climbing expedition shot to hell. And what was that mountain disaster movie that at first advertised its cannibalism but later changed to a triumph of the human spirit angle?
I‘m not sure if “127 Hours” is technically a mountain movie but it’s close enough to invoke the rule. Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” trails a rugged young outdoorsman, Aron Ralston, who finds his arm pinned beneath a boulder. In a crevice. In a desert national park. Cut off from civilization. Running out of water—with only a small knife to keep him company.
No matter how you slice it “127 Hours” is a movie that builds up to and away from its one big moment. The good news is that it has one big moment to build up to and away from. The bad news is that if you know what’s coming, and most viewers will, it sometimes leaves you wanting to cut to the chase. Somewhere around the 41 hour mark I wanted the film to be chopped down and retitled 67 Hours. Nevertheless most viewers will be entranced by the story’s grotesque circumstances. They will like James Franco’s performance as the hiker, whose experience leaves him both more of and less of a man.
Being an arty project, we know there has to be meaning derived from the moment. Boyle chooses to ruminate on the nature of human connection in the face of terrifying isolation. We enter the film through shuffling images of random crowds, images in search of a grand point. The images of human connection stand as a counterpoint to the isolation of nature and Ralston’s Lone Wolf personality.
Stuck in a rut, slices of Ralston’s life flash before his eyes. He imagines his loved ones, whom he keeps at arm’s length, and the only woman that ever really mattered. It’s a little like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” without the eye-rubbing, head-shaking, and one critic’s prayers for divine intervention. There is also a bit of Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.”
For a while Franco has been a star-in-the-making that Hollywood couldn’t quite figure out what to do with. It appears the answer is stick him in a hole. Ralston is a role that takes an actor out on a limb, because it is a lot of doing not much, and it’s all about you. For the most part, his performance never snaps a branch.
The arthouse loves a good, grotesque rural survival story. It’s a way to enjoy a good horror film free of a feeling of slumming and guilt. This year there was Kelly Reichardt’s forthcoming “Meek’s Cutoff” and we’ve already seen “Winter’s Bone.” Whereas “Cutoff” and “Bone” would appear to be traditional indies, “127 Hours” contains an element of horror as well. So come, enjoy the terror, and feel fine about it.