By david roark
November 12, 2010
In Danny Boyle’s powerful and ambitious 127 Hours, Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) stands isolated in a narrow canyon with his arm wedged between a fallen boulder and rock wall, hundreds of miles away from civilization. The impressive, audacious athlete who has conquered all—climbing mountains, running ultra-marathons—is stopped by nature to find his self-made world collapsing before him. Video camera in hand, a humbled Ralston weeps over his failure to inform anyone of his weekend venture into the canyon. He realizes he did this to himself: that his own selfishness and disconnect put him there. Tearing apart the humanistic notion that man needs no one but himself, Boyle confirms humankind’s need for connection, community and love. The filmmaker, moreover, reveals the power of such things through the insight his subject gains because of his journey and his sheer liberation.
Ralston’s story—the true account him getting trapped in a Utah canyon, spending five days reflecting on his life, and eventually amputating his arm to escape—doesn’t, however, just deconstruct a narcissistic worldview surrounding the currently hip outdoorsy lifestyle, which despite its focus on creation tends to minimize the Creator as well as true sources of joy, but it also underlines the significance of reflection, particularly on death. Believing his days are few, Ralston considers all the choices he has made—he dwells upon his mistakes and egotism—and his mind is, finally, opened to his own shortcomings. He apologizes to his mother and father for taking them for granted, and he recognizes the mistakes he made with his girlfriend, wanting to apologize and tell her he loves her. These thoughtful moments don’t just cause us to see the value in contemplating our future deaths—because there is no getting around that reality—they provoke us to examine our own lives, our own choices, and to mull over how we might live knowing that life could be taken away at any moment. Paradoxically, it’s a frightening, although enlightening, suggestion.
However, Boyle couldn’t have imposed such morality effectively without a sympathetic hero. Before we can learn from Ralston and his story, we must first fall in love with him, and we do. The carefree, smiley outdoorsman—despite how self-absorbed he may be at the beginning—makes us smile from the opening sequence onward. There’s a sincerity and charm about him that we can’t help but admire. Most importantly, though, Ralston has the ability to make us laugh one second and cry the next, which is really due to Franco’s uncanny versatility. In his best performance yet, the striking young actor balances emotion and reservation remarkably. He doesn’t give Ralston the Hollywood treatment; he portrays him with authenticity, as if he had actually lived through the experience with him and was there to feel what he felt, physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Franco, summoning his comedy from Pineapple Express and drama from Milk, controls the character completely and, thus, the movie.
These kinds of dynamics are also transparent in the picture’s overall style. Given the reflective, existential nature of the story, 127 Hours could have easily become a slower, less accessible film like Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, which dealt with similar themes. Boyle, though, being the relevant storyteller he is—before delving into aesthetics—first makes his film entertaining, through style and sound (the soundtrack is just exhilarating). Though at times relatively distracting because of their busyness, Boyle’s visuals are captivating through and through. Using hand-held cameras in most of the canyon scenes, he brings a sense of immediacy to the story and makes us feel as if we are in the canyon with Ralston, beside him cheering him on, or at the very least watching the real tapes he made while there. This ultra-realism is contrasted with big, cinematic shots—like a moment where the camera zooms out of the canyon to show how small Ralston looks in light of the endless desert—that, on the contrary, remind us we are watching a movie again.
Amid these two approaches, Boyle weaves in some untraditional sequences that come to the screen like a music video or a live sporting event. A fast scene, in which Ralston bikes from his truck to the canyon, with pump-up music blasting in the background, plays like a commercial for the X Games. Boyle puts cameras in Ralston’s water bottle and camelback to make his thirst, and transition from drinking water to drinking urine, a tangible experience for the viewer. The sound in these scenes, that helps personify the water, is also notable. The most risky technique, however, is a moment where Ralston puts on a talk show for the camera. As he switches back and forth between host and guest, Boyle shoots it like Ralston is actually two different people, moreover, adding an audible laughing and clapping from the alleged audience. This segment, showcasing Franco’s complex skills, epitomizes the film’s ability to be both engaging and challenging.
Because Ralston’s story is ultimately one of hope—one that doesn’t discount God and that sheds light on human experience—Boyle was undoubtedly the right filmmaker to capture it. An optimist who cares deeply about spirituality and the power of a greater love, he not only creates a pure work of art that greatly surpasses Slumdog Millionaire, but he also creates a spiritual monument: When Ralston escapes that canyon—with "Festival" by Sigur Ros building behind him—and calls out, “I need help,” it is more than just literal. The beautiful and inspiring moment signifies his transformation, and the grace extended to him. It is, for lack of better wordage, a holy moment.