James Franco delivers an excellent performance in Danny Boyle’s engaging, fictionalized account of Aron Ralston’s heroic real life battle for survival. In 2003, the thrill-seeking loner Ralston, while hiking in a remote canyon in Utah, gets his arm immovably smashed beneath a fallen boulder, where he remains trapped for 127 hours. Alone and without a cell phone (would he have gotten reception even if he had had one?), Ralston struggles to free his arm, which, over several days, decomposes before his very eyes.
We see Ralston’s fall, his struggle to free his arm and then his attempts to cut the arm off; we watch as he calculates his water intake and his ingenuity with what few tools he remembered to bring with him (he forgot his Swiss army knife, of all things!). Throughout, he takes a sort of video diary with a mini camera. He first divulges his plans for escape and self-mockingly jokes about his failure to tell anyone where he had gone. More affecting are what might have been his last words to his family and ex-girlfriend, who he has every reason to believe he will never see again. Hope comes and goes, opportunities and ideas present themselves until finally, in the most gruesome development, he frees himself. (I’m not giving away the ending here; it is no secret that Ralston lived.)
Franco’s charm and the sheer impressiveness of Ralston’s feat carry the film. Director Boyle, with too much cuteness and “style”, prevents the movie from being something more than entertaining (though it is very entertaining). In a tale of a man’s miserable struggle for survival, the last thing we should feel is the gloss and artiness of the director. Smooth time-lapse shots and intermittent bursts of radio music interrupt rather than enhance the tension of the event at hand. We do not feel the dryness of the day or the bitter cold of the night. We get the idea from Franco’s shivering and from his parched lips, but these suggestions of hardship are eclipsed too quickly by the next edit or memory. Boyle also plays with Ralston’s apparent descent into hallucination, providing good humor but with diminishing returns; should we still be chuckling so many times on day four of starvation and harsh exposure? Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I was gripped for most of the film. It is nearly impossible to lose interest during the recounting of such a remarkable story.
Franco’s portrayal of an immature man-child reflecting on the mistakes of his life is effective and provides quite possibly the only way to make the story accessible to mass audiences. Boyle could have gone with a grittier, real time approach, but perhaps this would have disallowed the crowd pleasing moments he seems to enjoy so much. Franco brings us back around to the human side: it is a lone man’s fight, with nature and his own sanity. It is not so much the glamorous adventure that Boyle seems to want to sell us.
I was put off by the incongruous ending, smothered with exalting music and a blur of questionable, bright images. A fade to black after he is finally discovered would have been quite sufficient. It is even stranger now, looking back on it; Franco playing Ralston is pushed to the background in favor of editing tricks and music and images of the real Ralston.
Despite all of my criticisms, I still enjoyed the film and would likely recommend it, mainly for Franco and a handful of excellent scenes. I suppose I feel a touch of disappointment at what seems like a missed opportunity at a mind-blower. Real life stories like this do not come around very often. I think that Boyle didn’t have to do as much to the story as he does; but of course that is his way. Sometimes it works and other times it does not quite fit.