For many years, Steve Irwin had amassed great fame and fortune by
handling wild and dangerous beasts for his own passion and for the
education of home viewers. All of that came to an end in early 2006,
when he attempted to handle a stingray that fatally stung him. Only
three years earlier, the famed lion tamer Roy Horn was viciously and
unexpectedly attacked by a white tiger that he and his partner, Sigfried
Fischbacher, had raised since the tiger was a cub. These are not the
first such incidents and they certainly won’t be the last.
The point being that mankind has always sought to harness nature.
There have always been people brave or foolhardy enough to make a living
out of conquering and taming the wilderness. Yet no matter how
practiced or confident such people may be, there’s no changing the fact
that Mother Nature in all of her forms is a cruel and unpredictable
So here’s 127 Hours, the true story of yet another man who
learns this the hard way. Aron Ralston, as played by James Franco, is
shown pretty much immediately to be someone who calls the Utah desert
his home. This is a guy who knows every rock and every hill, enjoying a
euphoric mix of danger and comfort as he climbs and bikes where there is
no beaten path. He’s also shown to be quite a smooth and arrogant
charmer when he briefly crosses paths with a couple of beautiful coed
But then things go downhill (so to speak) when Ralston traps his
right hand under a boulder he accidentally dislodged in a narrow canyon.
He spends over five days trapped in that canyon, gradually suffering
from dehydration, starvation, disrupted circulation and dementia until
he finally frees himself by cutting off his right hand.
The drastic means of escape might be a spoiler in any other movie,
but not here. Rather, the movie seems to have been made on the
assumption that the audience already knows the eventual outcome. That he
cuts off his own hand is not a spoiler, nor is the length of time until
he does so (it’s the title of the movie, for God’s sake). Instead, the
tension of this movie is in how Ralston manages to successfully cut
through his bone and sinew with nothing but a dull pocketknife and live
to tell about it.
In the meantime, Ralston is stuck by himself in the canyon under a
giant rock. He’s off the beaten path in the middle of a desert, with no
one in screaming distance and no cell phone reception. To that end, this
is pretty much a one-man show, which is something very difficult for a
filmmaker to do. Fortunately, our one man is James Franco and his
director is Danny Fucking Boyle.
To start with, the first thing that Ralston does when he realizes
that he’s stuck and no one’s coming is that he takes inventory. He takes
out everything in his pack and lays it on the boulder. From that point
on, every inanimate object in the vicinity is treated as a character in
itself. The boulder is obviously his firm and unyielding antagonist. His
camcorder is his only companion. His pocketknife is treated as a
useless but indispensable assistant and his water bottle… well, I
won’t bother trying to describe the way that water is filmed in this
movie. Suffice to say that Boyle effectively shows us exactly what any
liquid would look like to a man dying of thirst.
Boyle and Franco work together in perfect harmony to show us exactly
what’s going on in Ralston’s head. We literally see his life flashing
before his eyes. We see his desperation, his suffering and perhaps most
importantly, his humor. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the movie is
when Ralston addresses his camcorder as if he was hosting, guest
appearing and calling in to a morning talk show. There are cuts and
slight angle changes to show when Ralston is playing different
“characters.” Boyle even throws in a laugh track and some music to match
what’s likely playing in Ralston’s head. This is the self-deprecating
and humorous way in which Ralston makes fun of his situation,
specifically that no one knows where he is and he’ll likely be dead by
the time the police start looking for him. This gives way to an awkward
silence, after which the act fades away and he starts leaving apologies
on the camcorder. That sequence is essentially the movie in a nutshell,
and there’s simply no substitute for watching it.
Boyle employs no shortage of tricks to wring every last drop out of
this premise. For example, the hallucinations are frequent and
wonderfully used, from dreams of escape to a giant inflatable Scooby-Doo
(it makes sense in context, trust me). The flashbacks and visions of
Ralston’s possible future serve a dual purpose, fleshing out Ralston as a
character while showing just how far gone he is. It’s great character
development, it’s clear illustration of the stakes, it’s immersion into
Ralston’s state of mind, it’s a way to make him sympathetic and it’s a
device to momentarily change scenery, all in one. Absolutely brilliant.
Then there’s the score. A.R. Rahman has earned a world of kudos for
the music and lack of it in this film. So many of the film’s greatest
scenes — particularly that gruesome and painful amputation near the end
— are made great because of Rahman’s work. The general sound design is
likewise amazing, especially when Ralston first cries for help and we
see precisely how isolated he is.
Though I’ve already talked about the visuals at length, Boyle has
such an amazing visual skill that I have to talk about them some more.
Specifically, Boyle gets his cameras everywhere. Not only do we
see Franco from every possible angle within that tiny canyon, but we
also see the inside of his water bottle, the inner workings of his
camcorder and even the blood vessel where his pocketknife hits bone.
Boyle also has a trick in which he splits the screen into three vertical
segments with a different shot for each. This takes a while to get used
to, especially since the approach is so unfocused when it’s first used,
but it becomes vital later on. At the end of the second act, the thirds
all show different shots of Ralston and they’re constantly changing in
random order. This does a lot to discombobulate the audience and
confound our sense of how much time has passed, something that Ralston
himself surely experienced at that particular point in the story.
127 Hours is an amazing movie in every possible way. It was
founded on a real-life story of isolation, desperation and delirium,
made painfully immersive by Franco’s emoting and Boyle’s keen
directorial creativity. This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, but
it’s still thrilling and masterfully made. I totally recommend it.