127 Hours

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This is no word of a lie - after watching 127 Hours, my arm ached for hours. And not just a minor ache. The bone inside hummed. I was having difficulty lifting my arm. I ended up going to sleep in some minor discomfort.

All of this is small fry shit compared to what Aron Ralston (James Franco) has to go through. On a hiking trip in Moab, Utah, he gets his arm trapped under a boulder. Alone in a small canyon passage, and with only a small amount of water, some food and his hiking equipment, his chances of survival are grim.

I shouldn’t really have any reason to doubt Danny Boyle. By now in his career, he’s made so many great films. You’re almost always guaranteed something special. But although I was interested in the story, I still couldn’t quite get it out of my head that the star of the film was James Franco. You know, he of the smarmy leer - the omnipresent limelight drain; the aloof pie-eating leech that sucked the life out of the Oscars. But colour me pleasantly surprised. He’s excellent here.

Maybe Franco excels in 127 Hours because he gets so little time to interact with other human beings. In other films, he seems so detached that you can’t help but wonder whether he breathes the same air that we do. But 127 Hours has proved that that’s a little mean of me. Even though this is the James Franco show, he’s not the least bit cold. He’s finally proved that he’s a human being after all; that he’s not some dastardly smarm-bot created by the smarm-god Roger Moore in a laboratory with the aim of destroying pop culture.

The beginning of the movie shows what Ralston does with his freedom. He ignores his mother and sister, he treks off into the wilderness on his own and he’s a relentless show off - he even lies to a couple of hikers he meets in the canyon and tells them that he’s an engineer when in reality he works in a store. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s far too sure of his self. He thinks he’s in total control. The canyon is something for him to conquer, rather than to enjoy for its own reasons.

The hard, cold dose of reality is the boulder that pins him to a canyon passage. This is was not in his plan.

However, for all of his self-confidence, Ralston is one of the few people that is equipped to survive an ordeal like this. He may tell the odd fib here and there to impress the girls, but he knows his stuff. He knows that he has to keep calm and that he has to ration his food and his water.

At first Ralston tries to free his arm by cutting into the rock. Then, when he realises that this is achieving nothing, he tries to use his climbing gear to lift the rock from his arm. He manages to rig an elaborate winch. But Ralston isn’t strong enough - he reckons that it would take eight guys to be able to lift the boulder. Eventually Ralston realises that he’s going to have to cut his arm off.

Now this could be a simple blood and guts tale. Man gets stuck in a canyon, man cuts his arm off with a dull pen knife. But although the amputation is horrifyingly gruesome, Boyle’s skill lies in expanding the space of this tiny hole. You really get into Ralston’s head. Here’s a guy who thought he had it sussed - he thought he had everything worked out. But then came this boulder. Pinned to the wall, he gets to see ants and insects continue their existence, possessing a freedom he no longer shares.

For me, the film began to turn into something special when Ralston began to hallucinate. He begins to see his family sitting on a sofa in front of him in the canyon. No words are exchanged; no maudlin platitudes are shared. Instead they’re bathed in a golden light. Here are the people that care about him. Here are the people that are going to suffer if he can’t get out of this hole. And these are also the people that he has shut out. He finally begins to realize their importance; they’re finally coming out of the darkness.

Later Ralston even sees a child sitting on the sofa. This is a vision of the future he could have. He could be a father. He could have a family of his own. And there are also some wonderful flashbacks to Ralston’s past. We see him mucking about with his mum and dad and his sister. We get the impression that he’s forgotten about this - about how much these moments mean to him.

It’s only when Ralston has made this inner journey that he has the resolve to extricate himself from the hole. Using the dull pen knife, he begins to hack into his arm. Here you get to see another side of Danny Boyle’s character. He’s also a blood and guts man. The scene is truly horrific. Ralston breaks his arm a couple of times and then desperately amputates his dead limb. It’s a savage sequence and one that is aided greatly by Boyle’s command of the language of cinema. He knows that blood and guts on their own don’t really convey much. The true horror is in the sound effects. First its the breaking of his arm and then it’s the wailing guitars that come shredding from the speakers whenever Ralston touches a nerve. It immediately brings to mind the agony of going to the dentist when a nerve is hit. Except this is a horror on a much larger scale.

After Ralston frees himself from the boulder and the canyon passage, he has the good fortune to stumble upon the path of a hiking family. He looks like a shell of the man he used to be and for the first time since we meet him he has to accept help from other people. Finally he knows that he can’t do everything on his own - that other people are there to help shoulder the burden.

Ralston’s character has an interesting view on his ordeal. He thinks that the boulder has been waiting for him his whole life - the two were always destined to meet. This sounds terrifying but you can also take comfort from it. It doesn’t mean that there’s a god up there pulling strings. It means that what’s going to happen is going to happen. It’s up to us to make the most of it and to learn from it. Hopefully most of us won’t require a boulder to tells us that we need to treat our families and loved ones with compassion and respect.

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  1. I was surprised that you didn't mention Into the Wild in your review, about how these two are cut from similar thematic cloth, and yet...