127 Hours: The joy of living to tell the tale

Posted on 16 December 2010 by HansKlopek

Hans back with a review of one of the better movies you are likely to see this year, 127 Hours.

127 Hours plunges you into a perilous situation and keeps you there until the final bell. There have been plenty of films and stories that have preyed on our fears of being in hopeless situations with life slowly slipping away —ever read any Poe?—but few have done quite so good a job taking you along for the journey. You feel the pain and hopelessness every step of the way in this film. Walking out of the theater felt like coming up for air after a few too many seconds underwater; shocked at the pain of the experience, yet exhilarated about the joy of being alive.

The film tells the story of a young man named Aron Ralston who was trapped in a Utah canyon in 2003. After hiking through the mountains on his own, Ralston’s right arm was pinned behind a boulder after a short fall down a canyon wall. Ralston held out there for the better part of six days, rationing his food and water intake. Since he had told no one where he was going, he had no hope of being rescued. In desperation, he eventually cut his own arm off using his small multipurpose tool. He emerged from the canyon and was rescued.

Ralston wrote a book about his experience¬† called Between a Rock and a Hard Place which inspired this film. Reading about Ralston’s story in magazines and online, it sounded like something that could so easily be made into a cheap, movie-of-the-week survival tale if it got the wrong treatment. I was surprised when I found out Danny Boyle, whose last film was the rapid-fire Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, had directed the project. My ears perked up, obviously —Boyle’s work will always arouse my attention—but he didn’t seem like a natural fit. Boyle’s films always have such a vitality to them, as if there is no film stock fast enough to capture all of the excitement he has for a project. 127 Hours seemed like a project where he couldn’t bristle with the same excitement; to do the story justice, he would have to slow down and examine the experience.

And yet, 127 Hours works so well because Boyle brings the same energy to this project that he has brought to every other film he has done. The director harrowingly portrays the darkest moments of Ralston’s struggle, but what sits below the surface, and what sets the film apart from other survival tales, is the way that Boyle turns the young man’s struggle into an affirmation of life. This isn’t an exploitation film where you are supposed to sit on the edge of your seat wondering how he will get out of this situation. Boyle and his co-writer, Simon Beaufoy, simply allow you to sit with Ralston in the pain of his experience, his life slowly ebbing away with every passing moment. But in confronting the horror of the experience, Boyle also celebrates Ralston’s triumph. Walking out of the canyon at film’s end, you see a new appreciation for the value of his own life and those he loves.

A value that, as the film opens, Ralston (played with magnificent subtlety and skill by James Franco) sorely lacks. The film is careful not to paint him as too much of a jerk or slacker, but more as an energetic young man whose life has veered onto a questionable path. We see him as he prepares for his journey into the mountains of Utah; ignoring his sister’s phone messages, ignoring a call from his mom, skipping off gleefully to enjoy his own adventure. He tells no one where he is going, and is happy to rely completely on his own abilities and judgment.

But he also exudes an easy charm and warmth. Franco is brilliant in the way he builds the character early on. He zips headlong into the excitement of his expedition; jetting his car down freeways, powering his mountain bike vigorously through the desert, bounding down rocks and up against cliffs, Ralston is a force of nature, like a kid playing superhero who forgot it was all make believe. As he works his way into the mountains, he encounters a pair of female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) who he takes on a swimming trip in an underground lake. After a happy interlude in the water, Ralston hikes on. He has an easy time flirting with the girls, but pushes forward even more easily. As one of them says with Ralston skipping away to his rendevous with the canyon, “I don’t think we figured in his day at all.”

Once he has left the girls, the film is 100 percent Ralston. Rapelling down a canyon wall, he slips and falls to the ground with his arm landing behind a piece of rock that fell with him. After failing to pry it loose, he takes stock of his food and water, calculating how long he could possibly make it. He tries to remove the rock again with a pully system he creates with his climbing equipment, but fails. This far out from civilization, with no hope of someone coming for him, he begins to, understandably, fear the worst.

The premise of one guy trapped in a canyon for 90 minutes had to be an intimidating one for everyone involved in this project. But though it exists on a small scale, 127 Hours never ceases to be absolutely entertaining. Most of it this is due to the conviction and energy with which Boyle and Franco attack the material. They immerse the viewer in the machinations of Ralston’s psyche; the dwindling water supply, the rapid changes in temperture, the lack of circulation to his arm, all of them are concerns we feel like we are experiencing first hand. Boyle puts you right next to Ralston, frightening you with his despair but capturing you in his need to survive.

As hours turn into days, the psychological toll of the experience starts to break Ralston down. After an early fit of shouting for help, we watch him slowly pull himself back together, whispering the words “don’t lose it, Aron.” After a little time in the canyon though, he’s hallucinating about a party the two girls invited him to and the abundance of soft drink, alcohol and just plain water that they no doubt have on hand.

The film also provides flashes of different moments in Ralston’s life. I refrain from using the term “flashbacks” because these aren’t really defined scenes, but fragmentary glimpses into Ralston’s memories. For all his self-absorption, these moments paint Ralston as a fairly well-adjusted, normal young man with a great family he is sorry for neglecting and wants to make it back to.

When I first heard about the project, I was reminded, fairly obviously, of Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” and its Thoreauean hero, Christopher McCandless, played beautifully by Emile Hirsch. McCandless hiked into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land for a few months before becoming trapped there and starving to death. Penn’s film portrayed him as a gentle soul seeking a transcendent experience, disgusted as he was with the customs of modern society. Penn took an almost hagiographic view of McCandless, glorifying his rhetoric and presenting his death almost as martydom.

To me, the guy was just a mixed-up kid who had a lot of family issues to work out. His parents did have an abusive relationship, and Penn set that up as one of the reasons for McCandless’s flight from society. But throughout the film, I couldn’t help but be disgusted with McCandless’s disregard for his parents. He just seemed like a self-indulgent child playing his little games until he saw fit to come back to the world while his mother cried by the phone. I was also a little bit amused by how ill-equipped he was as an outdoorsman. When his death finally arrived, I wasn’t thunderstruck with sadness or much emotion at all. I kind of thought, “well, it serves you right for wandering into the wilderness with absolutely no idea where you were, no food with you and no one anywhere to come looking for you.”

Ralston falls into the same predicament, but is better equipped to handle the situation. He is able to step back at times and look at the scenario objectively; when the rock falls, he is immediately able to identify what type of rock it is and how it has him pinned in. He keeps steady track of his food supply, the time, the amount of sunlight his small area of the canyon gets every day, and most importantly, how long it will likely take for anyone to realize he is missing considering no one knows where he is. Even the decision to saw his own arm off, when he finally arrives at it, feels like a choice borne out of logic rather than hysteria.

Ultimately, I think the film works so well because Ralston seems like such a regular guy. There is nothing deeply tragic about him and also nothing deeply heroic about him. With Into the Wild, Sean Penn seemed to see himself a bit in Christopher McCandless, identifying with the character’s plight and finding common ground in his disdain for the world around him. Boyle makes no such connection, and instead sees Ralston as a symbol of basic ordinariness. He is just a guy like so many others, and in that mundane quality, Boyle is able to connect the experience with the audience; we see ourselves in Ralston, and sense that we could find ourselves in a similar situation if we were that careless.

The most talked about thing from this movie will probably be the amputation scene; it seemed to pass into movie infamy before the film even opened. Despite its quality, I think this film is destined to become known as “the movie where the guy got trapped and cut his own arm off.” What surprised me about the scene was the skillful way in which Boyle milked the tension rather than just tried to shock you. There is blood, obviously, but not so much that you keel over and pass out. You know what is happening, and Boyle doesn’t go out of his way to oversell it. One thing he communicates beautifully is the amount of time Ralston takes to complete the procedure. With brilliant, screeching sound effects and jittery camera work, he fully captures the horror of the experience. I let out a sigh when the scene was over—somewhat from relief that it was over, but mostly because I was amazed by what I had just seen.

That’s the movie in a nutshell, really.

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