DIR: Danny Boyle • WRI: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy • PRO: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, John Smithson • DOP: Enrique Chediak, Anthony Dod Mantle • ED: Jon Harris • DES: Suttirat Anne Larlarb • CAST: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara
‘This rock has been waiting for me my whole life’ – a moment of realisation for Aron Ralston, a young man literally trapped between a rock and a hard place for five days straight – not too long before making the decision that will set him free to live the rest of his life.
Everyone who watches 127 Hours goes into the movie knowing that the guy cuts off his arm in the end…but what you might not expect is the wide spectrum of emotions and imagery that his journey to get there encompasses. The sense of discomfort waiting for *that* scene is palpable in an audience throughout the running time, but there’s also the sense of discovery and life-affirming joy that the film’s fantastic direction evokes.
Danny Boyle brings the same kinetic energy to the material as he did with the likes of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire – there’s always been a confidence about his filmmaking that can either come off exhilarating or obnoxious, luckily here he strikes the former. From the opening scenes of Ralston setting off for his journey (without telling anyone where he’s going I might add) Boyle employs split-screen visuals and a pumping tune to bring the audience along for the ride, as he takes with him only a few supplies and a handycam to record his trip to the desert near Moab, Utah.
Franco’s spirited portrayal of a thrill-seeking adventurer brings to mind the same carefree energy of Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless – another ill-fated young explorer, played by Emile Hirsch. Tearing through the desert on his bike, Ralston falls to the ground and without pausing snaps a shot of himself smiling on the ground. There are some really dynamic camera tricks, like placing the camera inside the straw as he takes a sip of water. He encounters two rather irritating girls, novice climbers for whom he serves as guide for an afternoon, taking a plunge into the rock pool with them and then going on his way.
’We probably didn’t even figure in his day,’ the girls quip as he walks off. However, before too long Ralston is shouting their names from the fault line into which he has fallen. The moment the rock hits and he gets painfully wedged between it and the wall, bam – the title card ‘127 Hours’ – a good 15 minutes into the film, a very sly move on Boyle’s part. After much grunting and cursing, Ralston realises the severity of his situation, and so lays out his inventory – trying to formulate some kind of plan.
He begins by trying to chip away at the rock with the blade of the cheap made-in-China multi-tool he has with him. There is a moment early on when he drops the knife somewhere quite out of reach – and the audience, knowing what’s coming, secretly hope that he can never pick it up. But alas, he does – and in fact attempts to sever his arm with the dull blade far earlier than you might expect, but to no avail.
Ralston soon settles into a routine – recording his thoughts on the handycam every day, observing a raven that flies overhead every morning, the sunlight as it shines down into his fault line for fifteen minutes a day, and the few blissful moments he can bathe his ankle in it. Some music choices almost seem too upbeat and undercut the seriousness of the situation; Danny Boyle often (as he has in the past) places the need to keep an audience superficially entertained over the need to honour the grim reality of story.
Ralston becomes resourceful in his fight for survival, constructing an elaborate pulley with ropes and connecting devices, trying with all his might to pull the rock out, but failing to do so. On the Tuesday morning, he tapes himself hosting a kind of light-hearted TV chat show – interviewing himself about his current predicament. Entertaining as this enthusiastic schizo-dialogue might be, it stretches belief that he’d have so much energy after that many hours of dehydration.
He begins to have dreams, remembering times with the French girl-that-got-away, played by the alluring Clémence Poésy, and also experiences hallucinations – including a rain shower that turns into flash flood – a spectacular sequence that sees Ralston floating to freedom as the rock comes loose in the rush of water, defying audience expectation before returning to him in his actual circumstance. Some of the flashbacks and illusions are a little heavy handed, as to be expected with Danny Boyle – but for the most part serve the movie well to take us out of the confined setting.
As Ralston situation becomes more dire and he seems to be facing into death, his body is drained, becoming so dehydrated that he resorts to drinking his own urine, that same camera inside the straw now rising with a yellow liquid. ‘It’s no Slurpee’, Franco observes ‘…it’s like a bag of piss.’ Pushed to his physical and psychological limits, he makes the decision to sever his arm. He begins to have heart palpitations, and stabs himself in the arm out of frustration. Once again Boyle cuts to one of his novelty internal camera angle – this time we see the point of the blade hitting the bone. He begins breaking these bones, and it’s out with the blade again – slitting skin, ripping tendons, blood everywhere – the soundtrack underscoring the pain. You cannot distance yourself from it and say “it’s only a movie’ because this really did happen – loss of circulation is only the only consolation.
Despite how graphic the scene is, he’s taking the necessary action to break free and it is truly a cathartic moment after so many scenes of struggle and hopelessness. Eventually, he emerges with only a red stump remaining – climbing out into the sunlight, having lost one arm – but gaining immeasurable wisdom from his experience. The struggle is over and has felt real thanks Franco’s fantastic and commitment to the character’s plight and Danny Boyle’s inventive direction. 127 Hours is an uncomfortable ride, but one worth taking, as long as you’re not too squeamish.
IFCO website for details)
127 Hours is released on 7th January 2011