127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)
In the last week I’ve seen two movies that I’m having a lot of trouble getting out of my head. One was Melancholia, which we’ll address at length here soon; the other is this one, Danny Boyle’s hammering and insightful 127 Hours — a virtual one-man show dramatizing engineer / climber Aron Ralston’s fateful plunge into Blue John Canyon in Utah. An aggressively independent spirit, he’s told no one where he is and has had contact with no one except two young women early in his journey. So when he’s trapped, his right arm pinned under a rock, he assumes he’ll die. Always resourceful, though, he maintains a video log of all that occurs, and we bear witness to his entire ordeal in painful detail up to his final determination to survive.
Director Boyle gets a lot of accolades for being invisibly eclectic, but there’s no doubt from the earliest frames of 127 Hours that he’s behind the camera. He addresses the film in the exact same hyperactively edited, short-attention-span manner as Slumdog Millionaire — but this being the story of one man’s awkward relationship with the world around him, it’s far more appropriate here. From the earliest moments, we’re inside Ralston’s head, thanks both to the shorthand mania Boyle’s been poking at since Trainspotting and, even more crucially, to James Franco’s phenomenal performance in the lead.
I didn’t outwardly expect to recognize any of myself in Franco’s Aron; my outdoor adventures are limited to walks in public parks with duck ponds, but 127 Hours doesn’t approach him as an Adonis to be brought down. He’s a friendly, intelligent guy who’s not terribly good at connecting with other people, forsaking that in favor of a consuming obsession with the outdoors. He’s profoundly sympathetic not just because of his plight but because he’s aware of what it says to and about him, that he’s spent far too much time holding family and other loved ones at a distance. The movie’s not critical of his fierce independence, which is one attribute that undoubtedly makes him capable of living through this, but does quietly nudge him about his total willful isolation, the sense of invincibility and mortal permanence familiar to so many younger men.
Such character details are accomplished through flashbacks, but that’s no copout — the film in every sense is set, save ten minutes or so at the start and five at the end, in the depths of Blue John with Franco’s only screen partner the 800-pound rock that keeps him from moving. While the video camera diary allows Aron to maintain his sanity, he can’t be here for this long without drifting a little. The glimpses of Aron’s childhood, past relationships, and other mistakes are quick, stabbing, subtle, impressionistic — or at least as much so as mainstream American films get. Their dialogue isn’t explanatory, their importance isn’t underlined, and the logical but mindbending marches forth of soda commercials and inflatable Scooby Doos and other slightly abstract manifestations of Aron’s subsconscious call back to the withdrawal sequence in Trainspotting — with the same wry sense of humor.
Humor is crucial to 127 Hours, as it must be to a film that wrestles with life itself the way Ralston must have that week in 2003. Franco’s performance is entirely unforced, even warm and inviting for all the unpleasantness of his unprotected days in Utah. There’s no excessive sentimentality, not even an outsized desperation. Aron is a realist, with a deep understanding of nature’s unforgiving way, and his priorities are well enough in place and approached with resignation — he knows he’s got no one else to blame, and is remorseful about it in his video messages to his parents and family. Though Aron makes one attempt at amputation early in the narrative, with a crude tourniquet and a few stabs with a dull pocket knife, he hits bone and gives up. After five days, certainly aware of his fate, he has the sudden notion to break his own arm.
What follows justifies the real Aron Ralston’s claim that, save an odd scene at a hidden pool toward the beginning, 127 Hours deserves to be credited as the closest thing to a documentary that a narrative film can be. The amputation sequence is harrowing. It’s one thing to graphically depict a character’s severing of his own arm, quite another to manage somehow to make the audience feel every stab of the knife, every cut nerve. What’s actually shown is nothing uncommonly rough; just a lot of blood and prosthetics, and it’s easy to remind and reassure yourself it’s all fake. The sequence plays out, though, in Franco’s excruciating facial expressions and especially the sound design and musical cues planted underneath. Boyle’s landed a dream scenario of subjective cinema here; not only are we planted in the claustrophobic canyon with Franco, we feel everything he feels. And the triumph is finally handled with the same wise restraint as the flashbacks; no swell of music, no jumping up and down crying “YES,” just a quiet and sudden step away and a look of awe. Aron immediately takes out his camera and takes a photo, like all of us want to.
An epilogue at the finale establishes that Aron’s continued to climb and has a family now, and that he always leaves a note before he goes anywhere, but while it doesn’t hurt anything (and it’s nice to see a cameo from the real Ralston and his wife and son), it’s entirely unnecessary. Franco has already told us all that with his face, with his mixture of relief and gratefulness, with the simple way we know the fact that his isolationism can create crises has been proven to him. 127 Hours brings us completely into the inner world of this man, to see and experience and learn what he does, and achieves it in so little time (94 minutes) and with such crafty and emotional precision it can hardly be seen as anything except a signal we should probably call everyone we care about more. I know I’ll try to.