Festival buzz sometimes has a way of getting a movie’s reputation out of hand, and that’s certainly the case with Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. With rumors of audience members vomiting or passing out during its gruesome climax, focus has shifted from Aron Ralston’s remarkable true-life story to sensationalistic reports that do the movie a disservice. Once again, Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy comfortably traverse the middle-ground between experimentation and mainstream appeal. Through inventive editing and camera work, Boyle takes an otherwise-unfilmable story and imbues it with infectious style and energy. Coupled with a strong performance from James Franco, 127 Hours is full of cathartic, life-affirming excitement.
Aron Ralston (Franco) is the sort of rugged adventurer who is autonomous to a fault. Without telling anyone where he is, Aron goes hiking in Utah’s Blue John Canyon. He meets two young women, played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, and they’re impressed by his manic energy and reckless confidence. Aron soon leaves the girls and continues his journey alone. And as you’ve doubtlessly heard, disaster soon strikes. Within a crevasse, a boulder pins Aron’s right arm against the canyon wall. He tries to free himself with a dull blade and later a complex pulley system, but it’s to no avail. With food and water running scarce, Aron begins to hallucinate and reflect on the mistakes he’s made. Aron does some hard thinking as the days pass, and it gradually becomes clear he’s got only one option if he wants to survive.
Boyle’s canny visual sense is an asset in 127 Hours, as most of its running is spent with Aron pinned to a boulder. With few wide shots, Boyle opts instead for close-ups that reveal specific issues with which Aron must contend. At one point, Aron struggles to pull a rope taut on the rock above him, and Boyle focuses on the task at hand. Shots of the boulder and rope create empathy for Aron’s situation, and because there are no wide angles, the audience never feels the goal is hopeless. Other inventive shots heighten the audience’s sensory experience. A cross-section of Aron’s right arm serves as a biology lesson, and when he desperately resorts to drinking his urine, the camera work recalls Boyle’s previous work as well as Requiem for a Dream.
As for the non-stuck scenes, they oscillate between kinetic energy and meditative ruminations on Aron’s family/love-life. Franco handles the varying situations comfortably: his work has the potential to be career-defining, and will undoubtedly earn him an Academy Award nomination. The most intimate scene, where Aron faux-interviews himself with a hand-held camera, veers so well between pathos and black humor, yet Franco makes it look easy.
You may have noticed I’ve refrained from directly discussing the now-infamous climax. It’s getting attention for all the wrong reasons. Yes, Boyle’s camera watches as Aron breaks his arm and saws it off with a dull blade, but the gore is not what makes the scene remarkable (a brief shot of sinew is as bad as it gets). With the help of Franco’s defiant acting, the careful editing/framing make the scene more exhilarating than gruesome. A poignant image immediately preceding the climax suggests Aron’s action stems from a desire to live and not a fear of death. There’s even a “fuck yeah” moment as adrenaline takes hold and Aron becomes all the more motivated to succeed. In an unlikely way, 127 Hours becomes more than just a survival story. The boulder crystallizes what matters in Aron’s life and strips away his arrogance. When he inevitably does encounter fellow hikers, Aron’s desperate shouts and how they’re said reveal how much he has gained by leaving his arm behind.