For Thanksgiving this year, I decided to watch a movie that would give me plenty to be thankful for. I had to look no further than Danny Boyle's latest movie, 127 Hours. If you're not familiar with this true story, it is about hiker Aron Ralston who went out rock climbing in 2003. While climbing, a small boulder slips and wedges his hand against the side of a canyon wall. Nobody knew where he was going and he had only brought a limited amount of food and water. Aron spent 127 hours out in this canyon. If you'd care not to know what happened at the end this ordeal, then I'd stop reading here. I will say that I remember watching the news reports of this story, and so even though I knew what was going to happen, I was totally engrossed throughout the entire movie.
This film is Boyle's first since winning the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and he sure picked a helluva follow-up. First of all, the movie is almost all footage of Aron (alone), played by James Franco. If you were wondering what it would be like to spend a large part of 90 minutes looking at Franco's face, then get ready to find out. Also, though, there is the trick of filming the events of that 127th hour in a way that respects the audience, whether or not they know what is going to happen. This event is rather graphic, so Boyle would also need to decide on the appropriate level of realism. Not exactly small tasks. And for a number of people, these obstacles are going to be enough to keep them from watching this movie.
Boyle does a wonderful job of keeping the narrative moving. The first 20 minutes of the movie show Ralston as a man full of life. He doesn't walk to destinations; he bikes, runs, climbs, leaps - anything that will propel him forward. His exuberance is infectious. On his way to his destination, he comes across two lost hikers. Like a whirlwind, he points these young ladies on the right path and shows them the most fun they've had..."with their clothes on." And then, just like that, he bounds away returning to his own adventure and leaving those girls a bit confused about what the hell they've just experienced.
At about this point, up until the end of the movie, Aron is trapped in that small canyon with only his basic hiking supplies (not including a phone), well as a camera and camcorder. And during this stretch, Boyle was able to keep the story very interesting while also making me feel like I was in the canyon with Ralston. The monotony is broken up by a number of elements, including Aron's memories, dreams, and delusions. He also spends a lot of time recording his thoughts into his camcorder, so that the person who finds his body will know how to identify him. He's also creating a sort of "goodbye letter" for his family. Accordingly, a lot of the camerawork is first-person oriented. It's like Aron is talking right to you. And that's primarily what makes you feel like you're trapped in that canyon with him.
We get to see the slow degradation of this man's psyche which is very often hard to watch. He's alternately determined, defeated, scared, angry, hopeless, frantic, and any number of other emotions you might expect from a man who's careless decisions have condemned him to a slow death. And it's all brilliantly acted by James Franco. Movie by movie, he's proving himself to be a rather versatile actor. This role should earn him a Nomination since he was arguably snubbed for his supporting role in Milk.
As I said, I already knew what was going to happen. Maybe because of that, from the moment Aron gets trapped until the end of the movie, my palms were sweaty. After Aron runs out of food and water, he comes to the grim realization that he's going to have to do something extreme, or else he will most certainly die. In one of the most intense scenes of recent years, Aron breaks his trapped arm in two places and proceeds to cut through his flesh and bone with a dull knife and a pair of pliers. I'm not going to lie, this was hard to watch. Boyle went for a rather realistic depiction, which raises an interesting question: can you use scenes of intense, realistic gore in good taste? For years now, torture-porn movies have repeatedly proven that it's surprisingly easy to use such scenes in poor taste. However, is the opposite possible? And I think it is. Boyle has fashioned a movie where such a graphic scene has been earned - and that is where many movies fail with regard to violence. They don't earn it, and they certainly don't use it for any justifiable reason. However, in 127 Hours we are there with Aron the whole time. Even though Aron is a real person, as a character in the movie he's treated with respect, sincerity, and honesty. We see him psychologically and spiritually beaten down. A breaking point had to come (pun intended). And so as a scene of catharsis, the amputation is justified I feel. It's terrible to watch, especially since he's already been through so much. When it's all over, there is a handful of seconds where Aron and the audience take stock of what just happened. As tough as it was to experience, it feels like an opportunity to start over (in more ways than one). And even as he finishes surveying the scene and is starting to leave, he says "Thank you." The ordeal does go on a bit more, since he now has to get out of this canyon with only one arm, before he bleeds to death. He does go a while but finds some hikers who help him,
How far will you go to survive? What are the limits of the human spirit? How often are you your greatest obstacle? These are all rather hokey and cliched questions. However, what makes 127 Hours so good, is its ability to earnestly meditate on these issues without falling into the typical ways of addressing them (i.e. often drenched in sentimentality). There are a few moments where the music tethered the movie down a bit (hello, Dido). And there were a few times when Boyle's direction seemed a bit superfluous. Nonetheless, I expect the award season to be kind to him, Franco, and the film's editor Jon Harris. 127 Hours definitely gave me a variety of things to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!