Ensemble casts. We’re garnered with their “brilliance” all too often anymore, even when it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Case in point: take a look at the recent Valentine’s Day, the overly phellatiated (yes, a word I’ve made up)Crash, or even the more old school The Towering Inferno Though 2 of these were best picture Oscar contenders (and who knows, maybe Valentine’s Day will sneak in there in light of the conspicuous absence of quality cinema this year), all of these films’ reliance on their seemingly endless abyss of recognizable, A-list stars more or less whore the fact that, yes, they are indeed ensemble films. “We packed as many stars in here as we could. Only one or two of the stories are interesting, but we’ve got so many gosh darn people who are willing to be in this, we’ll tie in even more story lines that we’ll only half resolve, so we can have the most epic, star studded movie poster of all time.”
Cynicism? Yes. The above films are held dear to many people, and to those people I wish the utmost happiness and fruit of virtue into perpetuity. But whatever happened to small stories? Contained stories? Ones that only have a handful (or barelyany) cast members? Stories we can relate to because of their solitude and their conspicuous lack of destined-to-happen personal connections?
There’s a lot to be said for the one man show in particular. The films and plays where we many times are only privy to the perspective of one, yet it’s so poignant and played with such restraint that we lose ourselves within that solitary character’s world. We identify, resent, empathize, and even hate their actions because their each and every decision is one that we could have made for ourselves.
Of recent years only one film comes to mind that’s been bold enough to leap into the one-man side of the pool, and that’s a little called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (written by Ronald Harwood, directed by Julian Schnabel – and yes, I Buried came out this year too.) Throughout the entire film the audience has one perspective, and one only – of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man who has become paralyzed and is only able to blink. Though it came out some time ago, Diving Bell is still critically hailed for the very reasons described above, in addition to being an incredible story of human perseverance, the magical almosttorture of nostalgia, and the universal concept of love lost.
Enough setup. As you could have guessed, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours shares this same solitary, restrained brilliance of Diving Bell, focusing solely on the real life experiences of Aron Ralston (portrayed in what is sure to be the best performance by James Franco we’ve had the pleasure of seeing – a close 1st to Pineapple Express.)
As you could have guessed, the story is simple enough. We see Aron, obviously a hiking, mountaineering guru who thrives on thrill, ecology, remoteness, and disconnectedness… on the weekends. Quickly though, after a whirlwind visit with some fellow hikers (pretty much the only time we see any other people in the film), Aron falls through a crevasse, dislodges a small boulder in the process, and soon discovers that his arm is stuck between the boulder and the wall of the crevasse. He experiences no real pain, though Aron soon realizes that there’s no way he’s getting out of this place just by tugging.
For me to give a play by play of the film would be an incredible disservice to the potential viewer. The running time is short (just over 90 minutes), so every single beat matters, each one serving a specific, individual purpose to the evolution of Aron over the course of his 127 hour stay in the Casa de la Holy Shit My Arm Is Stuck. What Franco does so well, and what Boyle capitalizes on with incredibly inventive camera aesthetics and ingenious musical choices (like Diving Bell, Boyle often employs an almost hyperreal 1st person POV camera style that puts you right behind Aron’s eyes) – what’s achieved is a fast-paced, yet harrowing look at someone who knows they’re going to die. The genius comes from the fact that Aron accepts this, especially as it becomes all the more often that Aron’s waking life and dream world intertwine with one another (executed better and more honestly than Inception.)
If you haven’t heard the story of 127 Hours yet, I’ll take the liberty of ruining it for you (this of course doesn’t ruin the film at all – on the contrary it creates all the more suspense.) Aron ends up cutting off his arm with a dull utility to set himself free. Yes, this scene is incredibly hard to watch, but this is where Franco certainly brings his A-game, and it’s what becomes an incredible dance between reality, Aron’s memories of home, and what we learn are premonitions of his life to come.
The real kicker though with this film is it’s invisible screenplay. Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire collaborator Simon Beaufoy have written a script that completely and utterly works in service to performance. It’s the skeleton with which Franco created his character. Certainly more of a template than what we’d think of as a carefully constructed script. That’s not to say there’s no structure to the film – quite the opposite. But I couldn’t help but get the vibe that the more elaborate sequences in the film were carefully constructed (which don’t take up too much time of the film), and the intimate time spent with Aron in the crevasse were tweaked, refined, and experimented with in the moment.
Overall, 127 Hours is one of those rare films where it’s one guy on a screen who we get to know and love dearly by the end of the film. I definitely see this as Franco’s first Oscar contending role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Boyle got his second Directorial nomination.
Again, it’s a small scale film in the sense that we’re confined to one location for most of the film. But the real achievement of the movie is Boyle’s careful look at nostalgia, dreams, and premonition – how the mind deconstructs itself the closer and closer you are to potential death or even lunacy.
Go see it. If nothing else, it’s worth it for the last 10 minutes of the film. Kudos Franco and Boyle.
4 out of 4 severed arms.