I can’t really say there are spoilers because what happens in the film is, by now, well known and a matter of public record. James Franco, also soon to be seen in ‘Howl’, is on somewhat of a roll, here playing real life climber Aron Ralston who, in 2003 got his arm trapped by a boulder in the desert and had to cut it off to save his own life. That’s basically it – that’s all the film is about – nothing else happens. But this isn’t the bore fest that was ‘Buried’ – director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy deliver an impressive character study with the visual flair and energy you’d expect of the ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Sunshine’ director. Franco/Ralston starts off a nice but cocky adventurer, who for reasons known only to him, trecked into the Utah Desert without a mobile phone or telling anyone where he was going, leaving him in mortal peril when he became trapped by the boulder. Within a few days, facing death by dehydration or exposure, he’s forced to resort to drinking his own urine but even that won’t tide him over for very long, and there are no rescuers coming…
Franco delivers an acting masterclass in showing what happened next – the delirium, the desperation, the anger, despair, acceptance of his eventual fate all framed by the messages he left for his friends and family, before he decided at the very last moment to cut his own arm off as the only means of survival.
Where ‘Buried’ completely avoided any believable character development, ’127 Hours’ suggests a great deal changed for Ralston during his ordeal. A rescuer with a cocky arrogance and issues about his own independence and family relationships, Boyle’s film suggests he was driven to do the unthinkable (and it is a barely watchable sequence) by his acceptance whilst essentially in solitary confinement that he had a responsibility to his parents and family, and in his delirium he even apparently saw the child he was destined to have in the future. It’s by no means perfect – nothing actually happens after all – you wait the better part of 90 minutes for the inevitable to happen. Ralston isn’t presented initially as a character worth much emotional investment in either – so he gets trapped by his own reckless stupidity – why should I care? It’s to Franco’s credit that you do in any measure.
It works very well as a triumph of the spirit movie, but given that much of it is framed around Ralston’s famed self-shot videos during his ordeal, you’re left wondering what the real ones (which Ralston has refused anyone access to) are like. The style is so also pseudo-documentary (with an entirely predictable MTV flavour thrown in) you aren’t even given much of a chance to emotionally invest in Ralston/Franco, at least until the film arrives at the arm-cutting moment. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Ralston is more interesting after his self-mutilation than before, but Franco clearly oes every trick in the book to make him likeable throughout, and to transform which might otherwise have been a very dull script into an interesting journey.
’127 Hours’ isn’t an all-time-great film by any means, nor is it one of Boyle’s best – it’s far closer in tone to the insubstantial ‘The Beach’ – but it’s a great step forward for Franco and serves as an excellent Sunday night film. Not much more than that though.
You might think a film about a poem by Beat Generation stalwart Allen Ginsberg might be dull, sentimental or just plain pointless – well you’d be wrong. ‘Howl’ is itself a work of art, divided as it is between a recreation of courtroom sequences of the actual obscenity trial of the published poem, an animation of said poem and a pseudo-documentary interview with James (‘Harry Osborn’) Franco as Ginsberg, again with its dialogue lifted from actual interviews he gave. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have taken a lot of daring risks with this film, not least of which the animation – how can a film which decries putting poetry into prose possibly make definitive statements about ‘Howl’ by forcing fixed ideas and images onto it? And yet it manages to charm, to educate and entertain at the same time. It may walk a line of hypocrisy, and may not quite rise to the standards it sets for itself, but it comes pretty close indeed.
‘Howl’ was prosecuted, as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was three years later, for obscenity in 1957, and Epstein & Friedman’s script offers an insight into who Ginsberg was, what experiences and social changes made him into the towering figure he became, and why the poem was judged as not guilty of obscenity as Lawrence’s book was. It’s a brave undertaking and is supported by a towering performance by Franco of the great, gay poet who helped to transform post-war American popular culture. It’s a moving ode to a complicated man, which may not offer much more than a snapshot of him, set mostly at only one point in his life, but it’s no less powerful for it. I was inspired, interested and moved, when all I’d expected was to watch a courtroom drama which is there, but very much not the primary plotline the film makers have chosen to set their focus on.
Very much at the forefront of ‘Howl’ is the animation, and much has been made of it. Were the film makers wrong to fix ideas into the poem? Maybe. But as other criticism I’ve read points out, their chief error could be seen as making it more serious in hindsight than it was likely meant to be at the time. Ginsberg wasn’t considered a genius at the time (when Lawrence surely was), but in the same way that the Chatterley trial opened the door to greater freedom of speech in the UK in high culture, the ‘Howl’ trial offered the same opening for its ‘low’ counterpart. What harm was there in someone using the word ‘fuck’ or ‘ass’ or any sexually suggestive language, particularly when the point of writing the poem wasn’t there to influence but to impress? The film needed a slightly more critical look here and didn’t fully follow through.
Other criticism I’ve read complains that Franco is held back from delivering a fully three-dimensional and emotionally convincing performance because very little of what made Ginsberg tick being offered in the script, and while this is unquestionably true (would his predilection for younger boys in later life have made him a remotely sympathetic subject?), I don’t think it matters altogether much. ‘Howl’ is a tribute to the co-writers/co-directors’ hero, it’s a brilliantly told story of a fascinating man whose literary impact is still being felt half a century later, and Franco’s performance is compelling. It may not be perfect but it’s not terribly far off.