As an exercise in making a compelling film from a subject no one really wants to see, there’s no doubting Danny Boyle’s bravura. But it always comes across as exactly that; an exercise. His familiar pop video aesthetic is employed to bring us to the point where a man hacks his arm off with a blunt penknife. The dazzling visual and aural choices distance the viewer from any kind of profundity the gruelling experience may hold, an aspect Boyle acknowledges in the most token of gestures.
Telling the true story of climber Aron Ralston who, trekking through the Utah desert, found himself resorting to desperate measures when his arm became trapped by a boulder. The film utilises every technical and narrative trick in the book to keep us on board. The structure takes in flashbacks, hallucinations and dream sequences, while visually the director throws everything into the mix; sped-up and slowed-down footage, pin-hole, video and still camera, distorted angles and split screen.
I’m prone to rag a bit on James Franco; he’s a ubiquitous, cheesily grinning presence whose multi-media assault on viewers everywhere is less endearing the more encompassing it becomes. But there’s no doubting his dedication here; he’s on screen in close-up for ninety percent of the time (okay, I’m guessing about that), acting his little socks off. Aside from hikers bookending the piece (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn the only ones with significant screen time), everyone springs from his addled mind (including Treat Williams as his dad).
If Franco does a good job of getting us into the head of this daredevil adrenaline junkie, it is only up to a point; because maybe there’s only so much insight he yields. Boyle briefly tackles Aron’s “heroic loner” fixation, but maybe it’s the same pragmatism the character shows (as a matter-of-fact engineer, he can see his way through the horror to the mechanics of what needs to be done) that puts a full stop before any deeper philosophical or metaphysical pondering.
Boyle still hasn’t hit a homerun for me since the back-to-back triumphs of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His blind spot seems to be fully-rounded scripts. Some have great premises (28 Days Later…, Sunshine) but flounder into predictability. Others dazzle the senses but feel ultimately rather hollow (Slumdog Millionaire, this). And now he has Olympic glory pronouncing him a national treasure… I’m sure great scripts lie ahead that will make full use of his (undoubted) talents.
I readily admit to watching the nastiness of Aron’s amateur amputation through my fingers; if Boyle’s goal was to bring the viewer to the point where they will Aron to sever his limb, he is only partially successful. However you slice it, it is extremely unpleasant viewing. One might make a film about dying from exposure and have a similar sentiment as your goal (that the release is the thing!), but then he wouldn’t have been able to employ ecstatic dance anthems to express the triumphant moment. Come to think of it maybe he would, as the departee hurtles heavenwards.