127 Hours (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)November 01, 2010
Danny Boyle doesn't believe in doing the same thing twice. After the rousing success of the romantic fantasy Slumdog Millionaire, he has switched not only gears but continents to tell the true story of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours, an "action film with a guy who can't move." The film's similarities to Buried are striking in that both movies rely primarily on the performance of the lead actor and both challenge the audience's stamina to stay with a character under trying circumstances for 90 minutes. The level of tension in 127 Hours does not reach the intense level achieved by Buried, but it contains a scene so disturbing in its blistering, realistic gore that some will be forced to turn away. 127 Hours is unflinching in its depiction of what constitutes the "will to live."
The rest of this review assumes that the reader is at least cursorily familiar with the real life story of Aron Ralston, whose ordeal was the subject of numerous news stories in May 2003 (as well as subsequent network TV and cable documentaries). Those who don't recognize Ralston's name and/or don't recall the news reports may find my discussion of the film to be highly "spoiler-ish."
As is suggested by the title, 127 Hours covers a period slightly longer than five days lasting from the end of April to the beginning of May 2003. Maverick adventurer Aron Ralston (James Franco), 27 years old at the time, ventures into Utah's Blue John Canyon to do a little climbing and exploring. The film's first fifteen minutes, which are bright and colorful with glorious landscape shots accompanied by A. R. Rahman's throbbing score, serve the dual purpose of introducing us to the cocky main character and showing off the setting. Aron encounters a pair of lost female hikers (played by Amber Tamblin and Kate Mara, in what amount to cameos) and helps them find their way to their destination before he continues on his own. It's not long, however, before a mishap results in him tumbling down a shaft and becoming trapped at the bottom when a boulder crushes his arm against a tunnel wall and becomes lodged there. He tries everything within his power to free himself but the tools at his disposal are limited. As his supply of water dwindles, Aron realizes he may die here.
As with Buried, 127 Hours remains with the protagonist for the entire running time, never flashing to scenes of concerned friends or relatives wondering where their loved one is. There are a few brief flashbacks early during Aron's ordeal and, as dehydration and fatigue begin to take their toll on his mental state, he experiences dreams and hallucinations. The film, attempting to get into the character's mindset, represents these as parts of a half-crazed reality. Aron, who has a camcorder with him, records a video diary of some of his thoughts and experiences, with the hope that whoever finds his body will return it to his parents. (In real life, the videotape exists. Although it has never been shown publicly, Ralston allowed Boyle and Franco to view it as part of their preparation for making the movie. That, along with interviews and his autobiographical book about the experience, provides the narrative's basis.)
James Franco, who is on screen for nearly every frame of the film (often in close-up), gives the performance of a lifetime, overturning his reputation as a dramatic lightweight. He carries the movie. For more than an hour, we're down in a hole with Aron, and the tautness and intensity of Franco's performance keeps us engaged. It's his interpretation of the character that gets us to the point where we understand why Aron chose the path of self-amputation as the sole route of survival.
Needless to say, that scene is difficult to watch, and Boyle doesn't truncate it, turn the camera away, or do anything to lessen its impact. We see Aron break both bones of his forearm then use the dull penknife of a cheap multi-utility tool to saw away at the soft tissue. It's a bloody and unpleasant scene. There have been walkouts at some screenings and many have closed their eyes or turned away. Although less gruesome than the goriest images in some horror movies, the "reality" of this scene makes it more difficult to watch (in much the same way that it's almost impossible to view a fingernail be ripped off in a motion picture, even though it's a relatively simple special effect).
Although 127 Hours bears little resemblance to Slumdog Millionaire, it is made by largely the same crew. Boyle wrote the screenplay with Simon Beaufoy. Anthony Dod Mantle did some of the camerawork. And A.R. Rahman, the famous Indian composer, wrote the score. It's a testimony to the talents of these men that, if not revealed, one would not guess the connection between the films.
Boyle succeeds in documenting Aron's ordeal and in chronicling the difficulties he faced while in the hole: wild extremes in temperature, physical and mental fatigue, numerous failed attempts to free himself, and the anguish of waiting for death. His eventual act was part courage and part desperation, and many viewers will wonder (while hoping never to have to learn the answer) if they could do something equally extreme in a similar situation. The movie tosses in a little philosophy (about predestination) that doesn't resonate and some black comedy that does. One thing almost entirely absent (at least for those who know the basics of the story) is suspense. Not only do we know that Aron is going to survive but we're aware of how he's going to do it. So watching 127 Hours becomes not an exercise in finding out how things end but in studying the details of what went on during those five long days. Labeling the movie as a "thriller" or an "action" film could be deemed misleading because of this. Regardless, Boyle has made a singularly intense motion picture that tells in narrative form the same tale that has been related in TV documentaries. This is a fascinating story of determination and survival that deserves to be told. It is ultimately uplifting but it's tough going to get to that point.
127 Hours (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)
Cast: James Franco
Screenplay: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Cinematography: Enrique Chediak, Anthony Dod Mantle
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight