Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle's 1995 debut film, never quite added up for me. By all means nab the loot left behind when your shady lodger pops his clogs. Report his death or dump him somewhere, if you really must. But carving up the corpse? That has to be one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, up there with half-naked teenage girls wandering into the woods at night to find out what that strange noise could be.
Boyle's latest movie, 127 Hours, includes in its final ten minutes a highly necessary amputation that doubles as a mea culpa for the willy-nilly dismemberment of Shallow Grave. Look away now if you don't already know what happened to 27-year-old Aron Ralston when he went hiking in Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, in 2003. Come to think of it, "Look away now" might be good advice even if you do.
After plummeting into a deep crevice and finding his right arm pinned to the wall by a boulder, Ralston came to the realisation over the course of five days that he would have to forfeit that limb, like a fox gnawing at its own trapped leg, if he was to have any hope of surviving. The song that thumps over the picture's opening credits ("Never Hear Surf Music Again" by Free Blood) insists that there must be a chemical in the human brain that distinguishes us from animals. James Franco, the intriguingly unreachable actor who plays Ralston, renders the line of argument unstable. As he descends further into thrashing delirium, his appearance goes from My Guy pin-up to Francis Bacon's palette.
The film is defined by that single grisly act in much the same way as the whole of Brian De Palma's Carrie plays like one protracted tease for its gruesome climax. Boyle does some teasing of his own by foreshadowing Ralston's self-amputation at every opportunity, subjecting the film frame to all sorts of lacerations and butchery. The picture begins with a three-way split screen and returns so often to this device that we feel like security guards presiding over banks of television monitors.
There are other fissures, such as the crevice in which Ralston is trapped. The camera zooms out of it in reverse to show that, from the air, this potential grave registers as nothing more than a crease in the palm of a vast hand. As Ralston becomes ever more desperate, a cleft appears in him, too; wielding his ever-present camcorder, he adopts the persona of an unctuous TV host conducting an interview, complete with canned laughter.
Mike Figgis (in Timecode) and De Palma (in pretty much everything) used split screen to cover multiple perspectives and evoke cosmic coincidences. In Boyle's hands, the device is defensive - the first of many tricks in a campaign to distract us from noticing that 127 Hours is about a man with his arm stuck under a rock. Perhaps the antsy editing and zingy colours reflect the information overload of 21st-century life or the spirit of Ralston's cheery, insatiable narcissism. Less forgiving viewers might be reminded of the 1980s "yoof" TV trend, with its perpetually zooming cameras, rock soundtrack and LSD art design.
While it's understandable that Boyle and his co-writer, Simon Beaufoy, would not wish to bore audiences, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. And 127 Hours is a lot of fun but it's never intense; even a red-tinted X-ray shot that shows the blade of Ralston's penknife moving through the flesh towards his bone has a gimmicky, B-movie thrill. There are so many flashbacks, fantasy detours and reprieves from the situation in hand that the film operates as a kind of pressure-relief valve, establishing tension only to dispel it at once. If most of us put down our fizzy drinks and popcorn in sympathy as Ralston's supplies dwindle, that's still not the same thing as being forced through the emotional wringer.
Boyle's unashamed populism has been the making of him but, in this context, it is also his undoing. In the absence of anything overtly gruelling, it would be easy to watch the film's grisliest scene and protest, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that it's only a flesh wound.