One of the rare unsettling images from the movie
Ninety three minutes
I don't know what it is about Boyle's bouncy, music-video style that grates so; maybe because it so rarely melds well with the material he so often takes up. Zombies with their supernatural serenity--so eerie in the hands of George Romero--in his hands turns into far less interesting blood-infecting savages (28 Days Later, 2002); romantic comedies with attractive lovers (Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz) aren't allowed much time to relax and generate any romance, much less comedy (A Life Less Ordinary, 1997); and while the style in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) does dovetail quite neatly with how Indian musicals look and sound and feel like nowadays, maybe it dovetails a little too neatly. One wonders: why bother watching an overproduced British imitation of a Mumbai musical when you can easily rent the real thing from a neighborhood Asian grocery store (with far more singing and dancing, at that)? Only with Trainspotting (1996) did I think there was a perfect union of substance and sensibility--in effect, Boyle's sense of pacing and imagery most closely resembles that of a heroin addict, who immediately suffers withdrawal symptoms if he can't get his fifteen-minute head rush.
So like I said: man with right arm trapped beneath a rock, but you wouldn't know it from the way Boyle directs the picture. Objects and animals hurtle across the sky like a twenty-four hour video screen; Ralston goes into more flashbacks than an episode of Family Guy. Boyle seems so frightened of boring people to death with the situation of a man with arm pinned under a rock that he cannot give us the physical reality of a man with arm actually pinned under a rock. There's too many interesting things going on at the corner of the eye or behind his back or careening overhead or roiling inside Ralston's skull--a full daily schedule, from the look of it--for us to believe that he suffered much deprivation or boredom. I've had a far more wearisome time doing a double shift, and I can walk around at work; unlike Boyle, I don't have a twenty-four hour video screen running at the back of my eyeballs.
James Franco gives it his all in this picture, and who wouldn't? You're not just the lead, you're practically the whole picture, for great swathes of the running time (at one point the hero stages his own impromptu talk show, complete with annoying guests and audience sound effects). It's the kind of performance that wins a slew of Hollywood awards (you know, those gold-plated statuettes they hand out every year to congratulate themselves on their artistry), the kind of show-stopping physical suffering that inspires Academy members to put their votes behind a man (this year, actually, a woman: Natalie Portman's nearly two-hour nonstop freakout in Black Swan, complete with (some whisper) her own ballet dancing (gasp!) and Grand Guignol fingernail clipping is considered the frontrunner favorite). Franco, despite the warm reception by critics, is not a frontrunner: I suppose he made the mistake of going too far, attempting to trade his right forearm for one of those damned doorstops, and on camera at that.
To be honest, I can't fault Franco--he's just an element, albeit a crucial one; I can't even fault the story, which is what it is, take it or leave it. I do wonder how the whole thing might have turned out if they chose someone else to direct--Werner Herzog, for one. He might have added a touch of mysticism to this portrait of cruel, implacable nature, and a good deal more humor; he would probably have had a more clear-eyed and less romantic view of the protagonist (think of Grizzly Man (2005)). I don't imagine Herzog would be any less exploitative, but his exploitation tactics would at least be more cunning (I'm thinking of the scene where Herzog, instead of playing to us the tape of Timothy Treadwell's death at the hands of a grizzly, listened to the tape himself and allowed us only a running commentary--which whetted our curiosity all the more). His surrealism would have been more genuinely insane, at least (Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) anyone?), would look like no other director's--unlike this one, which calls to mind Tony Scott or Alan Parker on hallucinogens--mild ones, at that.
But Boyle took it, Boyle made it, and here we are, stuck with it. By movie's end, you may want to claw at your own hand to get away--ninety minutes of Boyle's in-and-all-over-your-face style has that kind of effect on some people.
First published in Businessworld, 2.10.11