This month saw the release of Danny Boyle’s new film 127 Hours, which relates the true story of climber Aron Ralston’s gruelling, graphic escape from a crevasse by hacking off his arm with a blunt Leatherman knife. It’s one of Boyle’s better films, evading easy generic categorisation even as it brings an intense and considered spirituality to the table along with the kind of kinetic energy which epitomises the visual style of a Boyle film. Ralston’s monologuing into a video camera sees the man accept his own culpability for the extreme mess he’s found himself in even to the point of viewing his inevitable, atrocious action as his personal Everest: it’s not the athletic challenge he thought would elevate him from man to superman, but it’s nonetheless his bitterly ironic destiny to become physically superhuman through self-mutilation. This kind of dramatic depth achieved in a truly probing character study is not only rare in a Danny Boyle film, but also rare for any film: it’s distinctly theatrical. Similarly theatrical is the spatial confinement present in 127 Hours, though Boyle doesn’t give the audience a chance to realise it.
Not that you’d ever expect the rapid editing, pacy soundtrack and constantly-in-motion camera so exhilaratingly used in Boyle’s films to be completely absent, but it really is surprising how relentlessly 127 Hours propels itself forward considering that our protagonist (alongside three brief but crucial female exceptions the only character in the film) spends the majority of the ninety minute running time in a very limited physical space hardly able to move. Boyle rejects the inherent stillness and meditative nature of this set-up and, through a dizzying melange of feverish fantasies and distorted memories, permits Ralston and the audience temporary opportunities to escape confinement. These imaginative excursions, and Ralston’s isolation-induced mental deterioration and increasingly desperate escape attempts, are related in defiance of the minimalism displayed in films with similarly claustrophobic situations.
Setting a film within a confined space is nothing new in cinema, but normally the point of using such a claustrophobic premise is to trap the camera, the characters and the audience in that space. I don’t want to start rambling on about the formal differences between theatre and film, but in these scenarios the interplay between the two is particularly fascinating. The theatre traps actors, images and dramatic action within the frame of a proscenium arch just as the frame of the movie camera encloses the action of film within an inescapable perspective (3D notwithstanding.) In both cases there lies an inherent inversion of how dramatic space and visual perception co-exist: in theatre the audience can look at whatever it likes but is confined to the limits of what can physically be placed into the stage space, whilst the film camera chooses what we are allowed to look at within a potentially infinite space. When film takes the infinite space away, as Boyle does in 127 Hours, there is a self-conscious limitation of both the physical space of the setting and the audience’s freedom of visual perception. Why else would Boyle present such tantalising and exhilarating coverage of Anthony Dod Mantle’s striking, stark and beautifully composed photography of vast, scorching Utah desert landscapes, only to then imprison us in a canyon? The film gives us this infinite space, knowing it will inevitably be taken away.
Minimalism in cinematic form normally comes into play at this stage, as a deliberate directorial decision to exploit the unique situation of limited space and perception we find ourselves in. It can’t be described as theatrical, in fact it’s inherently cinematic, but this minimalism does harness the potential of film to enhance elements of theatrical narrative. Boyle himself has talked about film as a magnifier, taking subtleties and nuances of human behaviour and projecting them onto a huge screen, thereby drawing attention to such gestures and expressions in a way that is impossible in the theatre. On film a dramatic moment can be as understated and natural as in life, whilst in the theatre the same action has to be projected to the back row of the dress circle: it’s why Stanislavsky’s method is far more suited to film than theatre. The potential for absolute authenticity and naturalism in acting comes with the territory in film, being that you’re playing to a lens and not a full auditorium, and when cinema goes minimalist the camera gets closer to the actor for a much longer stretch of time. If we have no visual distractions in a film an actor receives our complete, undivided attention, and when this is the case a cinematic narrative has the opportunity to boast the character development, dramatic depth and attention to the acting normally only seen in theatre, where the dramatic action is less watered down by editing, sound and visual imagery. Boyle and Franco have seized on this chance, and because of this 127 Hours becomes less an exercise in technical suspense and much more of a psychological character study, displaying complex spiritual ideas and a distinctive, impressive lead performance.
However, whilst Boyle’s handling of Franco, and Franco’s handling of the character, adheres to what is expected of cinematic minimalism, Boyle’s use of the cinematic space certainly doesn’t. Having imprisoned us with Ralston, Boyle permits him and us to escape via his fantasies and memories, and whilst this sits perfectly with the psychological nature of the piece it flies in the face of what previous entrapment films have led us to expect. Normally when a film places us in a confined space, it exploits the limitations of the set-up by keeping us in this spatial prison, and exacerbates this confinement through minimalist technique, i.e. close ups, lengthy shots and a motionless camera. Needless to say, the camerawork of 127 Hours remains fast and frenetic even in Ralston’s rocky cell. Perhaps it has something to do with the audience knowing how the film ends: because Boyle denies us time to breathe as the taut film hurtles towards its horrific denouement there isn’t much sense of suspense, nor is it required in a film which is aspiring to be something other than a suspense thriller. For whatever reason minimalism lends itself to suspense far more than fast editing and faster camera motion: stillness and calmness sustained over long periods of time plays against what we are used to seeing in films, and as such is much more off-setting. In Hitchcock’s Rope we don’t know whether anyone at the party will chance upon the body in the crate, and this uncertainty combines with Hitchcock’s ostentatious use of an apparently unbroken shot to generate suspense. In Bresson’s A Man Escaped, we don’t know exactly how Fontaine will break out of his prison, and this combines with Bresson’s simple attention to the minutiae of the character’s physical business to again generate suspense. The same kind of suspense is pointless for Boyle, and so too, therefore, is minimalist technique.
For me, this is what makes Boyle’s latest film such an original and distinctive achievement. The work plays out with the same breathless energy as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, and this energy is every bit as effective and appropriate as in those films. What’s remarkable is that this style works for a story which would seem to demand the exact opposite technique.