By Scott Martin
127 Hours, USA / UK, 2010
Directed by Danny Boyle
“Fifteen minutes of sunlight every day. At 8:30am, a lone raven flies overhead. Almost out of water. No more food. God knows how long is left to go.”
I feel more than free to talk about the conclusion of this film, seeing as how it was one of the bigger news stories around five years ago. Aron Ralston, a toned and talented rock climber and athlete, fell into a canyon in the desert and was trapped “between a rock and a hard place” (the name of Ralston’s inspirational memoir), with his arm stuck between a fallen rock and the side of a mountain crevice. Consider the outcome: lose the arm or die. On paper, that choice seems to already be made, and maybe for Aron Ralston it already was. It’s just … getting there. That’s the film, and the difference between films like this and, say, Saw (1 through 18) is that this film isn’t built around the gore of that decision or the horror of that gore. Films like Saw (2004), while it’s an excellent film in its own right, seek to exploit the violent nature of the situation rather than the humanity that can be born from it.
Also consider the difference between this film and another one-man show from earlier last year, Buried – both rely heavily on the presence and believability of their lead performance, and both consider the human struggle within the situation, rather than the audience’s struggle with the inevitable. Trust that 127 Hours takes the severance to an incredibly disturbing level – watching Ralston cut through his arm is probably the most harrowing and disturbing cinematic moment of the year – but the thing about this film is that it isn’t focused on the rise and fall of an eventual hero; it’s focused on the constant rise of the everyman, and that’s where it finds its success.
Additionally, the film’s success is found in the transcendent turn from James Franco, an actor who up until now hasn’t had the chance to deliver anything this deep. He’s been excellent before, believe that, in the television film James Dean (2001) and Pineapple Express (2008), and he even managed to save City By the Sea (2002) from sinking, a feat which should never go unmentioned when talking about Franco’s career. But here, much like two other performances this year (that of Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and Christian Bale in The Fighter) he is unrecognizable, even though his appearance isn’t altered at all. His emotional mining is so deep, and so real, that we become unaware of the actor and are placed there, in that canyon, between a rock and a hard place, cutting through our own arms with him. It’s impressive work, but beyond that, it’s important work.
Most of my complaints about director Danny Boyle’s approach to his films over the years are null and void in this one. What made Slumdog Millionaire (2008) so jerky was its editing, but that’s exactly what keeps this film from being too hard to handle. It has an elegant pace – exquisite, in fact – and, as intrusive as A. R. Rahman’s score for Slumdog was, his work here is at once beautiful and thoughtful. Without calling attention to themselves, the techs (the soaring cinematography, the quick edits, the quiet score mixed with the brash pop soundtrack) build our world, even more so than the canyon itself.
It’s never about the measure of the man, or to what lengths he’ll go to to save his life, a theme commonly found in neo-grindhouse cinema; it’s a stretch to classify this as grindhouse, but it fits with the new form, I think. What the film muses on is the journey, rather than the destination, a smooth rhetoric considering our setting is the destination, and the journey there takes only the length of the opening credits to achieve. 127 Hours is compulsively watchable and endlessly entertaining, with a brilliantly realized screenplay, a stunning lead performance, and meaningfully composed and considered techs.
Aron hallucinates after a few days, he’s starving, dying of thirst, physically exhausted, and he’s running out of time. The inevitable happens, and it hurts to sit through, but what happens afterward makes it all worthwhile. The value of life is determined, and I felt like I no longer had anything to worry about. After constant cringing, I was brought to tears of joy. The groundwork laid by Franco and the crew is built upon beautifully and never lets itself get stale, not even after more than five days of it, and that’s pretty impressive in and of itself.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com