Director Tom Hooper deserves credit for getting these performances and managing the tone pretty successfully, but he also has the annoying tic of framing everything in the most awkwardly artsy manners possible. He keeps shooting people straight on using wide lenses against strangely colored walls, suggesting a blander Wes Anderson, or shoving people way over into the corner of frames, while filling up the rest of the frames with, again, strangely colored walls. I guess he was trying to avoid the British cinema-of-quality look, but it just comes off sort of awkward and forced, not adding anything.
Rating: 7/10 stars. (I almost gave it a 6, but what the heck, I'm feeling generous.)
I have not seen all of Danny Boyle's output to this point--in particular I am missing his acclaimed 28 Days Later. But from what I have seen, he is an always-interesting, always-exciting director who has yet to make a truly great film, and perhaps never will. His movies are shot with relentless stylistic excess--a constantly moving camera, wild angles, fast cutting, and lots of pop music. They feel like music videos, but they lack the ambience and feeling of someone like Wong Kar-Wai, whose films also feel like music videos, but with brilliance in every frame. Instead, Boyle's movies are relentlessly kinetic and always watchable, but thematically murky and no more thoughtful than the average Hollywood drama. This inescapable style of his means he probably wasn't the best choice to helm the tense, claustrophobic story of a man stuck in a crevasse in the desert for five days.
From the beginning, Boyle fills the screen with flashy, quick moving images. He splits the screen, uses time lapse photography, aerial zoom-in shots, etc. This is fine as far as it goes, but it feels like this is a movie about the Tour de France rather than a tight, life-or-death struggle. This style will not let up for more than a few seconds for the rest of the film, and it takes away a lot of the tension and all of the claustrophobia of the ensuing events. Fortunately, the ensuing events are so horrifying and fascinating that the audience remains rapt. James Franco plays Aron Ralston, an adventurous rock-climber type who dislodges a boulder while clambering through a ravine and suddenly finds himself stuck, with little food and water and no rescue coming. Eventually, he has to cut his arm off to free himself. Franco is excellent here, giving essentially a one-man performance for much of the film that never comes close to feeling boring or repetitive. Of course, this is partly because Boyle's camera can't sit still and there are so many dream/memory/hallucination sequences that take us out of the hole, but Franco still deserves credit. And despite the fact that Boyle denies us ever sharing the feeling of being stuck along with Franco, and shows pretty much all his escape attempts in fast forward so we don't become bored (not that we were going to), he still does at least three scenes right that save the movie.
First, when Ralston first dislodges the boulder and traps himself, the music falls away and we are suddenly forced to share his shock and growing fear as he realizes his arm is wedged immovably. The oddness of the moment is allowed to speak for itself, as Ralston is standing on the ground, the rest of his body fine, with only his arm caught by the rock. He should be able to just walk away, but he can't, and we his growing terror is horrifying. Second, Boyle gives us a scene in the center of the film that shows Ralston talking into his camcorder and recording what are likely to be his last thoughts on earth (something the real Ralston also did). Franco interrogates himself about his own stupidity, mocking his own faults and failures, while a sitcom laugh-track plays, before finally breaking down and telling his family how much he loves them and will miss them. The scene is powerful and emotional, and Boyle's split-screen effects and shifting back and forth between camera stocks for once work perfectly to serve the story. And finally, Boyle gets the amputation scene right. It is without doubt one of the most painful things to watch onscreen that I have ever seen, and it is a much more difficult process than I ever imagined. But it is also cathartic, and when it is finally finished, and Ralston stands suddenly, incongruously free of the boulder where he has been stuck all this time, it is a beautiful moment. Of course, then he has to walk several miles to find help, but that is handled well, too, and the whole climactic sequence left me feeling hopeful and alive.
Rating: 7/10 stars