127 Hours and the unique films of Danny Boyle

News Glen Chapman
7 Jun 2011 - 10:32
127 Hours

Glen explores the common themes of director Danny Boyle, and explains why you must see his latest film, 127 Hours…

Having built a reputation as a director of considerable talent since his impressive feature debut Shallow Grave in 1994, and with the massive success of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire culminating in awards season glory, Danny Boyle had his pick of potential projects.

He was in the enviable position of being able to make almost whatever film he pleased, yet instead of going for a lavish blockbuster with a mega budget, he decided to make 127 Hours, an intimate character study based on real life events. (It could be argued, in fact, that all Boyle’s films are intimate character studies in one way or another.)

Boyle’s films have a tendency to feature flawed but likeable protagonists; people whose charm and strength of character enable them to overcome the obstacles that are placed in their way.

Even films that appear to be bleak on the surface, such as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire and, indeed, 127 Hours, are ultimately celebrations of life. In all his films, Boyle has showcased the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and has shown that, even in moments of despair, there are hopeful messages to be found.

Other traits can also be attributed to the director. Many choose to highlight his distinctly visual directorial style, which shows a considerable level of flair and creativity. Another aspect that is frequently highlighted, which is of particular interest to me, is his understanding of song placement and the use of music in his films.

Trainspotting, in particular, features one of the finest soundtracks ever. Boyle also appreciates the importance of scores as well as individual songs, and he’s aligned himself with some talented composers to add emotional weight to his work.

Subtler themes can also be seen in Boyle’s movies, particularly the exploration of faith. Millions and A Life Less Ordinary are the films that most explicitly explore these subjects, with Millions featuring a protagonist who is a devout catholic who converses with saints, and uses his newfound wealth to carry out acts of kindness.

A Life Less Ordinary deals with faith in a somewhat lighthearted way, with guardian angels setting out to ensure the two leads fall for each other, or face banishment from heaven.

This sense of having guardian angels looking out for you ties in with 127 Hours, as Ralston has likened Megan and Kristi, the hikers he meets prior to his accident, to guardian angels. 127 Hours also features a kind of spiritual awakening, as Ralston’s visions of life with a child is one of the things that propels him to take action to survive.

One of the things that has always impressed me about Boyle as a director is his clear enthusiasm for his films and the characters portrayed in them. Some directors can be quite dour in interviews and on commentary tracks, but Boyle always seems to relish the opportunity to discuss his films, and does so with the same level of energy that he shows in the films themselves.

While 127 Hours isn’t as packed full of creative direction and cinematography as some of Boyle’s previous work, this is still clearly a Boyle film, and won’t disappoint fans of the great director. He does an excellent job of keeping the film’s runtime at 90 minutes, yet still packs in so much.

There’s never a dull moment, as even the slightest task seems like a monumental struggle, and you really feel Ralston’s thirst and a sense of claustrophobia. This ability to empathise with the character is one of the film’s many great successes.

On my second viewing of the film, I really appreciated the level of detail that went into the establishing scenes, which passed me by when I saw it in the cinema. The fact that, when we’re first introduced to Ralston, as he prepares for his outing, he exclusively uses his right hand to search for essential items shows how we can become reliant on something and take it for granted.

Water is also demonstrated as being something that can be taken for granted, too, and this is felt throughout the film, but particularly in the opening scenes, where water is wasted as he allows his bottle to overfill, and he then leaves the tap dripping. Those drops that seem so insignificant at the time would later become something that he would crave. Water is also shown in the one scene that really deviates from the source, and was put in by Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy to further establish the presence of water in the film.

Without wanting to give too much away, Boyle has said that the arm removal isn’t that bad, and that it’s more about the suggestion of what’s happening. In the feature, 127 Hours – An Extraordinary View, he follows on from that by stating that he didn’t want this scene to come across as a horror gore fest. Personally, I found the scene to be deeply unsettling and incredibly graphic. Sure, other elements, such as the sound design, go in to making the scene so powerful, but it is very, very, graphic.

In many ways it reminded me of  Alexandre Bustillo’s 2007 film Inside, with its use of visceral gore. One specific element of the score at this point sounds like a distorted scream, really heightening the disturbing nature of the events that are unfolding. I don’t mean for this observation to be taken negatively, as it really is a masterfully constructed and incredibly powerful scene that immerses you in the horror of the situation. 

127 Hours is a tremendous achievement, turning what could have easily been a straight documentary into a compelling feature film. Doing this with minimal artistic licence couldn’t have been easy, but the hard work from all involved is there on the screen. The fact that the the real Aron Ralston is so pleased with the final result is testament to how tasteful the material was handled, but still, I’m sure to many the film is a tricky sell.

If you have yet to see the film and have enjoyed any of Boyle’s previous work, it really is a must see. As outlined in this article, there are numerous thematic similarities to his previous films, and it is very much more than  a story about a man stuck in a canyon. It’s a film that is impressive from a technical perspective, and one that has an incredibly inspiring message.

It really is one of the must-see movies of the last 12 months.

127 Hours is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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