Copernicus at TIFF survives BURIED and Danny Boyle's 127 HOURS!!!
Published at: Sept. 16, 2010, 5:14 p.m. CST by quint
Copernicus here again with two surprisingly similar films from TIFF about two isolated guys’ struggles for survival. One is 127 HOURS from Danny Boyle, and the other is BURIED, by director Rodrigo Cortes.
127 HOURS is based on the true story of Aron Ralston. In 2003 he went hiking alone in Blue John Canyon in Utah, only to fall into a crevice and have a boulder pin his arm against the rock wall. He survived for more than five days on limited water and supplies, before ultimately cutting off his own arm with a dull knife to escape. Boyle co-wrote the script with Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Aron Ralson’s book, BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE.
Here, James Franco plays Aron. He’s an excellent mountaineer, hiker, and outdoorsman, but maybe a bit overconfident in that he goes out on a trek without telling anyone his destination. This is pretty much a one-man show, but we get an introduction to his character when he comes upon two attractive but unaccomplished fellow hikers played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara. Aron acts as a guide for the duo, introducing them to shortcuts, and an underground cave where they all go swimming. But before long the novices have to go on their way to their destination, while Aron continues on to his date with destiny.
It is hard to sustain a feature running time with a lone guy in the wilderness, but Danny Boyle, of course, has a few tricks up his sleeve. First, Aron has a video camera, and he makes periodic recordings, so we can hear his thoughts (I believe the real Aron Ralson had a video camera too). Second, he has periodic daydreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations that break up the monotony. And of course, this being Danny Boyle, he uses every trick in the book to spice up the proceedings – shots from inside a water bag, split screens, music, and dream sequences. As a result, the film never drags, and even knowing the true-life story never detracts from the wrenching personal drama.
James Franco’s acting is superb. It is a tough and physical role – tons of pretend pain and little dialog, but he nails it. Being the only thing on screen for most of the running time, he truly has to carry the film and he does.
One reason the film works so well is that we feel like we are trapped there with him. Everyone can imagine him or herself in the horror of that situation. There’s something very primal about it – it is playing to something deep down in us all – something even deeper down than our humanity. And at certain key moments, even in my theater full of hardened critics, there was a hell of a lot of squirming and groans of empathy.
After tackling killers, heroin addicts, zombies, children, and even Indian musicals, Danny Boyle has taken on yet another challenge, that of making a compelling film about a single man stuck in one place, and has shown yet again that he is one of the most versatile and accomplished directors working today.
BURIED is just as compelling as 127 HOURS, but for slightly different reasons. This is the pure fiction story of Paul Conroy, a truck driver in Iraq whose convoy is ambushed, and who wakes up in a coffin, buried alive. I went to the public screening of this one, and director Rodrigo Cortes gave a lively introduction where he questioned the psychological state of any audience wanting to see an hour and a half film of a man in a box. Then he brought out what he described as “The entire cast of BURIED: Ryan Reynolds!”
Indeed the bold choice made in BURIED is that it never shows a prologue, or cuts away to a flashback, or to anyone on the outside. This is a straight-up dude, camera, and box story. The result is that you as the audience member feel like you’re in there with him – you never get a break from the claustrophobia, and your sense of panic and horror rise with that of the character’s.
The central conceit that makes the film work is that the character has a cell phone, so he can make contact with the outside world. But of course, at least initially, he can neither make contact with the right people, nor can he convince those that he does make contact with to help him.
Another bold choice is not to cheat and show some ambient light in the coffin. When it is dark, and this happens often, it is pitch black. Ryan Reynolds essentially lit the film himself during his performance with practical lighting. When he’s holding a lighter, that’s what’s lighting the scene. (Occasionally, when it lighter is off screen, they cheated and used three lighters.)
If James Franco had to carry 127 HOURS just on the strength of his performance, that is doubly true here with Ryan Reynolds. Without the underlying true story, the flair of Danny Boyle, or the luxury of cuts away from the coffin, the entire film is essentially Ryan Reynolds performance. It is largely this incredible acting job that makes this a film to see.
But the writer and director get credit too. Written by Chris Sparling with the intention of shooting the film in his buddy’s garage, the script is tight, and has a strong message about America’s conduct in Iraq. A particular focus is the reliance on unscrupulous contractors, and the treatment of their employees. Sparling said he interviewed some contractors as he was writing the script, and was moved by their struggles to get insurance payments for injuries obtained on the job. And the director, Rodrigo Cortes, deserves equal praise. Shooting a guy in a box would is a technical nightmare – Ryan Reynolds said he was almost turned down the project because he was so skeptical that it could be achieved. He relented when Cortes enthusiastically assured him he could do it, and even sent him diagrams showing him how he’d get the shots.
Reynolds also said it took so long to get into and out of the box while they were shooting certain scenes, he’d just stay in there in between takes. Often his heart rate would go up and he’d have little panic attacks. An actress reading the lines spoken on the other end of the phone, who was actually in another room (but who he could hear on a tiny ear microphone), often had to calm him down.
Here again, this film taps into a primal fear. At the screening, Rodrigo Cortes said he wanted to make a film you don’t just experience in your head, but you feel it in your bones. He certainly achieved that objective with BURIED – I felt drained after the screening from the hour and a half of tension, and you could sense the entire audience exhale as the final moments played out. And after that exhalation came the cheers. BURIED is gripping and intelligent, and above all is certainly something you’ve never seen before.