Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours tells the story of real-life mountaineer Aron Ralston, who spent five days trapped in a Utah canyon before severing his own right arm in order to escape. Contrary to the title, it mercifully does not unfold in real-time, but it is technically spectacular and emotionally uplifting nonetheless.
Aron, played brilliantly by James Franco, is both enthusiastic and childlike. In the opening few scenes, he is established as an adventurous, slightly silly soul who is truly intoxicated on life. He is attracted to canyon country by the adrenaline and danger just as much as by the solitude and sublime landscape. Goofy and a self-professed weirdo, he is clearly intent on drinking life to the lees. It is only when his death becomes horribly imminent that he turns to serious introspection and regret. The real Aron was intimately involved in the making of the movie, but even so, it’s a testament to Mr. Franco’s acting ability that he was so able to fully embody this real person and make every second of the performance ring true. He (pardon the awful pun) single-handedly carries the film.
The unconventional visuals are another part of what makes this movie, which, in less able hands, could have easily been grueling and dull, so surprising and entertaining. The movie is nicely book-ended by triple-split-screens – colorful and joyful, suitable enough for a film hailed as “Triumphant!” on every poster, and the effect is interesting, albeit a tad indulgent. While trapped in the canyon, Aron reminisces and hallucinates. As viewers who share in both his adversity and triumph, we are also privy to his every illusion, delusion, and memory. It’s fascinating and even profound to see what a young man in such a truly horrific situation would choose focus on. I haven’t read the book which the real Aron penned about his ordeal, but film seems to be the perfect medium to portray what was going through his mind.
Aron displays an incredible resiliency and sense of humor throughout the days he spends in the canyon. There is an implied determination on his part not to, as he puts it, “lose it” – on his video camera, he records observations about what has happened to him and last messages for his family, and he wants to minimize the pain which his loved ones must experience when they view the footage of his last hours. However reckless his previous decisions may have been, he wants to go out with any grace and dignity he can retain. He alternates between deep and heartfelt regret and an impressively matter-of-fact understanding of the irony inherent in the whole thing. “I’m something of a big and hard hero”, he observes sarcastically. “I can do everything on my own.” There is one darkly comedic scene where he imagines himself as an interviewed guest on a TV program, canned studio laughter accenting his frank statements about his situation. (“Is it true that you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?” “OOPS.”)
All the same, what physically takes place there between the literal rock and hard place is both hypnotic and disturbing. The cinematography, which previously showed us the vastness and beauty of the open canyon landscape, is incredibly effective at forcing us to comprehend the terror and frustration of Aron’s plight. It’s uncomfortable to watch even if you’re not naturally prone to claustrophobia. The actual amputation scene is absolutely uncompromising… in other words, it’s extremely graphic and intense. He is equipped for the job with nothing except a blunt “cheap, made-in-China multi-tool”. But, while visceral and gory, it is not unbearable, and I definitely think that it is a necessary part of the film. As a viewer, it would be cheating both yourself and the filmmakers to avoid the climax of Aron’s journey. We cannot fully feel his triumph if we don’t watch the inevitable step he must take to achieve it. In the end, the joy we feel at Aron Ralston’s survival far outweighs the horror and pain of what we had to watch him endure. Besides, it took Aron three quarters of an hour to sever his arm. Cinematically, the scene clocks at just over three minutes. It is unforgettable and emotionally disarming nonetheless.
His choice of action is not an easy one, and it is not one which everyone would be able to successfully attempt. Ultimately, while he has to make the effort to free himself, he’s not able to do it entirely on his own. I don’t want to spoil the real emotional heart of the movie, but the hope which he clings to is very moving. (I cried.) It is interesting to note that in the final cut of the film, the extent to which religion or reliance on God affects him is left rather ambiguous. As he stumbles out of the crevice, free at last, Aron murmurs a “thank you” which is definitely not directed towards himself. The scene in which, on the second or third night of his ordeal, he turns to prayer was unfortunately cut from the finished film, and I think it’s a shame – it is plausible and graceful, and definitely seems consistent with human nature. At the very least, Aron certainly seems to view his fate as destined or inevitable: “The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface” he muses. But vague as that particular aspect may be, Aron’ story is definitely a prime example of the old saying that God helps those who help themselves.
While definitely inspiring and based on yet another “incredible true story”, 127 Hours is not a universal tale of survival. For me at least, this definitely sets it apart from the many Hollywood depictions of real-life events intended to uplift and inspire: It is about a very specific type of man who essentially got himself into a horrible situation because of his unique character traits and flaws. The beauty of the story is that he is able to use the same things which trapped him to set himself free: his almost irrational optimism, his crazy and reckless resolve, and his love of life itself. The horror of what he undergoes makes his success all the more exhilarating. While we all might not experience self-inflicted trials on such a dramatic scale as Aron Ralston, it is a great reminder of how resilient and powerful determination can be.