There are some instances that leave such an indelible mark on our consciousness that, even years after the fact, they have become so entrenched within our subconscious as to elicit a response almost every bit as potent as at the moment of their inception. In the realm of cinema, this can often be the first exposure to a soon to be favourite director or film. Perhaps a specific scene within a larger narrative is poised perfectly to so embed itself within you that it becomes an eternal reference point for years to come, shaping how you view almost every work from there on out. In my own particular case, such a moment occurred years ago on first having seen Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. A film that carried itself with such raucous, raw energy as to have swept me up completely in its wake. A film that ticked every box on the ‘feel-good movie of the year’ and ‘crowd pleaser’ variety that it could muster. A film that I utterly, unquestionably and emphatically loathe.
Within its framework, there lacks a single scene that has not been meticulously crafted to exploit and manipulate, whose inner workings are directed at evoking anything more than the most base and general of human emotions. It is a film that is so saccharine and brazen in its attempts at soliciting a response from the audience that I wager even the master of manipulation, Steve Spielberg himself, would wince at the very prospect.
The film sets its tone early on and seldom lets up. The opening torture scene told in media res, in constructing the narrative structure and erecting the morally questionable framework that supports the entire sordid affair, leaves the viewer with little doubt as to what is in store. It is a scene which leaves no marks on its central hero, which, upon the narrative twisting and winding its way back to the source and resuming its discourse, finds him with no lasting scars, physical or otherwise and even has him exchanging a sympathetic glance with his earlier captors come the film’s end. Its central role was little more than a device, one crafted specifically to draw the audience into his plight but which, in naivety and bold faced crassness, refused to deal with its effects, effects which are all too real and commonplace for myriads of people across the globe.
In recent years, Boyle’s films have become little more than exploitation cinema masquerading under populist sentiment, apparently free to do so as they smother the violence and lurid content of the genre under a heady perfume of sentimentalism. This is every bit as evident in 127 Hours, a film whose mere concept is ripe for such an approach. The fact that Boyle managed to construct a moving tale from such an inspiring story shouldn’t have come as a surprise in the slightest as, to the contrary, it would be an impressive feat for any director to have failed to manage exactly that. But, even then, Boyle seems ill at ease at the prospect of being contained by the confines of his concept, with constant swooping camera pans rising from the crevice where Ralston is trapped. Limiting the shots to just James Franco’s mesmerizing performance would likely have been a step too far and, at the very worst, might actually have elicited a sense of genuine emotional attachment from the audience.
I don’t believe that Boyle is a man without merit and, in fact, I find myself craving the borderline cynical eye he turned towards Sunshine and Trainspotting, both films which also displayed an incredible ability to both create tension and dread, all the while enveloped within an eclectic and almost electric sense of pacing. A step away from the sentimental and overly saccharine manipulation of films like Slumdog and 127 Hours and a move towards the believable relationships, characters and worlds of his earlier work is all that I ask. Maybe not enough to have me forget, but enough to numb the pain.
By Vitor de Magalhaes