Between a Rock and a Hard Place

127 Hours ★★★★★
(USA/UK, 93 min.)
Dir: Danny Boyle; Writ: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
Starring: James Franco.
To quote the priest in Breaking the Waves, “You are a sinner, Anthony Dod Mantle, and you deserve your place in Hell.” Well, be it a blasphemy to be a sinfully good cinematographer, then Mantle has surely earned his spot in the inferno. With the spectacular lensing of 127 Hours, Mantle and co-cinematographer Enrique Chediak prove that sometimes life is at its most exhilarating when delivered at twenty-four frames per second.

127 Hours marks Mantle’s fourth collaboration with writer/director Danny Boyle, their most recent project being 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. Whereas Slumdog was an overhyped lapse into sentimentality and cultural appropriation, not to mention a real hack-job of a great book, 127 Hours is a triumphant and inspiring story of survival. Not only is 127 Hours Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, it’s also a flawless piece of filmmaking.

The opening sequence of the film introduces Aron Ralston (James Franco). An avid outdoorsman, Aron embarks on a weekend hiking trip. His preparations are rendered in a frenetic montage that is sure to excite whichever moviegoers are not already fleeing for the exits. The hyper-kinetic style continues as Aron begins his trek, and it soon becomes clear that Boyle and his technical crew have envisioned a spectacular means to replicate the adrenaline rush that Aron gets from his extreme adventures. The brisk pace and roller-coaster energy of the first act ensure that 127 Hours is a cinematic high unlike any other.
The most enthralling part of Aron’s journey, however, occurs when all his rock climbing and cliff jumping ends. In a quick moment, while traversing a wide crack in the surface, Aron’s support gives way and he falls into the deep ravine. He becomes trapped in the hole, as an enormous boulder breaks away during the fall and crushes his arm. The rock is too heavy to move and he, literally, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Coincidentally, 127 Hours is based on Ralston’s memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, so the outcome is not nearly as bleak as it sounds. True, Aron’s prospects are extremely dire: equipped with only a few hundred millilitres of water and minor food rations, he has little to sustain him until help arrives. He soon realizes that the likelihood of assistance is minimal, for he remembers that he informed nobody of his trip. The hopelessness of Aron’s situation is punctuated by a stunning aerial shot in which Mantle takes the camera from Aron’s landing spot and ascends the precipice from which he fell, zooming out until the frame stresses Aron’s isolation with an expansive birds-eye view.
Aron’s predicament is especially troubling because he is such an experienced climber. One cannot imagine how a less-prepared climber would have fared in such a situation. (Well, that’s not true…) The subsequent hour or so depicting Aron’s attempts to free himself are a harrowing, white-knuckle inducing feat. Rendering each moment thoroughly captivating is James Franco’s stellar performance as Aron. Franco essentially performs a one-man show in 127 Hours and it’s anything but boring. Not only is the role physically demanding, but also it requires Franco to reach the most complex levels of Ralston’s tormented psyche, which becomes extremely volatile in the final stages of his despair. Throughout 127 Hours, though, Franco never abandon's Ralton's lust for life. The extent to which Franco propels himself into the role makes Aron Ralston one of the most affecting and impressive achievements of the year.
Accentuating the heroism of Ralston’s survival is Boyle’s ability to depict the minor details that both give and take hope from Aron’s situation. Of particular note are the beautiful shots in which Aron gets fifteen minutes of sunlight to warm up: the way the camera captures the light quickly moving across the rocks is but one way in which the natural elements of the setting are exploited to an ominous effect. The film’s greatest moment, though, is bold scene in which Aron decides that the only way to free himself is to cut off his own arm. While many filmmakers would shy away from depicting such a gruesome sight, Boyle holds the shot on Aron throughout the whole ordeal. The physical exertion of Franco’s performance makes this scene unbearably shocking, riveting, and emotionally draining – if you thought watching Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation in Antichrist was an ordeal, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Thanks to Boyle’s fearless staging, Ralston’s unfathomable extrication is the consummate moment that defines the film.

127 Hours is easily Boyle’s finest accomplishment as a director. It also marks some career-high work from his collaborators including Franco, Mantle and Chediak, and editor Jon Harris, as well as composer A.R. Rahman, whose score pulsates through 127 Hours with an electrifying beat. 127 Hours is a uniquely inspiring film that is guaranteed to leave you breathless.