It’s not often that a movie gets a physical reaction out of me. Emotional, sure. That’s par for the course. But physical? Not so much. In 127 Hours there was a moment where I was curled into so tight a ball while sitting in my tiny theatre seat that my legs started cramping and my back got sore. All the while my gag reflex was working overtime. I’ve squirmed in movies before, but never like that.
The story is based on the harrowing true story of Aron Ralston, a story so well-known it barely needs repeating. (But I’ll do it anyway.) In 2003 the fun-loving adventurer headed out to hike through Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon without telling anyone where he was going. While maneuvering through a narrow passageway he slipped, tumbling down into a crevice and eventually becoming trapped, his arm pinned behind an immovable boulder. 127 hours later he emerged – near death – having severed his arm with a dull utility knife.
Think about that for a minute. I mean, really think about it. How desperate would a person have to be, and how mad and out of your mind with pain and misery would you need to be in order to actually be able to do that? It’s a daunting task to try to put that kind of determined agony on the screen, but director Danny Boyle and star James Franco have managed to do so beautifully.
The movie begins with Ralston exuberantly prepping for his day. Instead of foreshadowing the impending misery, the filmmakers saturate the opening sequence with a sense of excitement and adventure that reflect Ralston’s personality and way of living his life. He never walks, but rather runs or jumps along, full of excitement and obvious anticipation. This is a guy who has a real thirst for life. His energy is palpable.
Then the fateful hike begins. Despite a brief meeting with a couple of lost hikers, the canyon is empty. And once Aron becomes trapped, he, as well as the actor who plays him (the fantastic Franco), is entirely alone. What happens next is what career-making performances are made of.
Ralston’s being completely alone could have posed some challenges to the filmmakers, but the saving grace is that he kept a video camera and recorded updates on his efforts to escape – as well as his own obituary. Director Danny Boyle uses this to imbue a sense of intimacy and closeness between the character and the audience that would have been really difficult to achieve otherwise. The other technique he uses – to lesser effect – is a series flashbacks and hallucinations. While they offer insight into Ralston’s thoughts and give him a chance to take stock of his life, they take away some of the tension that’s building inside the cave. But despite this slight loss of tension, Boyle brings tremendous energy to this story about a man who can’t move.
You can’t talk about 127 Hours without talking about the marvelous performance by Franco. His turn as the tortured outdoorsman really is spectacular, and he makes you feel every ounce of pain and agony (mental as well as physical) his character is experiencing – particularly during those brutal moments that had me rigid yet nauseous in my seat. He carries this movie, and he does it with aplomb.
The fact that everyone more or less knows how the story ends does nothing to take away from its intensity. If anything, there’s a heightened sense of anticipation precisely because you know what’s coming. When does he do it? What’s the catalyst? Are they really going to show it? The way Ralston survived this experience is really remarkable and certainly inspirational, and I suppose this is where I should say something meaningful about the triumph of the human spirit – but those cheesy lines have been said in just about every other review. Just go see it. You’ll be glad you did
The Upside: See above.
The Downside: While certainly good, the first two thirds of the movie weren’t quite as gripping as I had been led to believe, and the intermittent flashbacks and hallucinations take away from some of the intensity. But all of this does little to detract from the overall quality.
On the Side: There have been numerous reports of people fainting during the infamous amputation scene. If you’re James Franco or Danny Boyle, you’ve gotta be a little pleased about that.