Friday, January 7, 2011
127 Hours Movie Review: The First 126 Must Have Been a Cake Walk Compared to the Last
In watching a film about an adventurer who spent five days trapped in a canyon alone, you may ask yourself at the moment he becomes trapped how a dramatic narrative can be stretched for an additional hour and a quarter. Well, screenwriters Danny Boyle (who also directed) and Simon Beaufoy and actor James Franco have an answer for you in 127 Hours. They put together such a compelling force of drama you won’t easily divorce yourself from the tension played out on screen.
It shouldn’t be revealing too much to say that Aron Ralston (Franco), the main character – virtually the only character – survives. After all, the opening titles clearly tell us it is based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Ralston, who ventured into Blue John Canyon in Utah one day in April 2003 without telling a single person where he was going. What happened in that canyon would forever change him.
Ralston got his wrist pinned between a falling boulder and the canyon wall and spent the next five days trying to free himself, surviving on what little water he had, his own urine and his tremendously heroic will to survive. Franco’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. Consider that he has no one but himself and the camera to riff off of. Almost the entire movie is a solo act, save a brief scene of frolicking with two young women in an idyllic underground lagoon, a handful of flashbacks, and several hallucinations. All his motivation as Ralston must be completely internal as he contemplates at first the precariousness and later the inevitability of his circumstances.
They’re not afraid to play the film for laughs midway through when Ralston realizes that the earliest anyone is likely to even start looking for him is Wednesday (he got pinned on Saturday). He imagines himself a guest on a talk show, with himself also playing host and a viewer calling in to comment. It’s much-needed comic relief in the middle of a harrowing ordeal. The scene is also an inventive way to include expository dialogue with only one character.
Boyle and cinematographers Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle use light and shadow to create enough of a sense of claustrophobia to make us feel like we are right there in that canyon. They use a combination of handheld cameras and video footage replicating the digital video diary Ralston made while he was trapped. He reportedly documented his hallucinations as well as his goodbyes, although he has kept the video from the public. As he begins losing his mind into the third and fourth days the camera moves in tighter and tighter, making it impossible as a viewer to ever feel like you’re too far removed from his plight. Many of the shooting techniques are similar to 28 Days Later (also directed by Boyle and shot by Mantle) including a long pullback shot from Ralston at the bottom of the canyon to several hundred meters above the canyon, which from that height looks like a hairline fracture in the surface of the earth. Like some of the long revealing shots of Cillian Murphy in a deserted London, it illustrates his complete isolation from any living souls who might help him.
Film editor Jon Harris is working with Boyle for the first time here, but the similarities to other Boyle films suggest to me that he has very clear ideas about how he wants his movies cut together. He uses multiple split screens to show various angles at the same time, which often serves to highlight the mania settling into Ralston’s mind. Boyle is one of only a handful of directors working today who truly understands and exploits the cinematic medium to maximum effect. Since Trainspotting he has not been afraid to defy film convention in ways very similar to the Tarantino style. It’s certainly no surprise that they came up at around the same time.
Most everyone probably already knows how Ralston eventually freed himself. If you don’t and would prefer to remain in the dark, here is your SPOILER WARNING (you can jump ahead to the end warning to read the rest of the review). After spending days hacking away at the boulder with his small multi-use tool, Ralston decided to amputate his arm above the wrist. There is simply no way to describe the gruesome horrific detail that Boyle exposes us to. He barely leaves a single part of the process on the cutting room floor (an expression which strikes me now as being in bad taste). The cheap knife was so dulled from scraping at rock that he is forced to snap both bones in his forearm before cutting through the flesh, prying out the tendons and severing the nerve. The way the sound design combines with the editing and cinematography in this sequence is spine-tingling, jaw-dropping, nerve-wracking horror. I have not felt so physically uncomfortable and almost unable to look at the screen since Boyle’s first feature, Shallow Grave, which pales in comparison in retrospect.
Boyle has always had a special gift for the gut-wrenching – Ewan McGregor pinned to the floor by a knife through his shoulder in Shallow Grave; McGregor (again) fishing around for his opium in “the filthiest toilet in Scotland” in Trainspotting; a shark attack victim in The Beach; a little boy diving into a pit of human excrement in Slumdog Millionaire. Well here he finally tops himself. I describe all this by way of saying that if you are at all squeamish (and I’m generally not) then give serious thought to averting your eyes for a few minutes. I later made the mistake of watching a clip on YouTube of Ralston giving a detailed description of the amputation process and I quite honestly had to stop the video, open the window, and sit with my head between my knees to keep from vomiting. Consider yourselves sufficiently forewarned!
To its core, 127 Hours is a story of survival and the indomitable human will. What draws us so strongly to stories like Ralston’s? When we see them or read them in the news we repeat them to friends, the amazement somehow never subsiding. We are fascinated by what we ourselves might be capable of doing given extraordinary circumstances. It’s a theme that has always informed Boyle’s films whether it’s a survivor of a devastating plague who doesn’t think twice about killing her best friend to save herself from being infected in 28 Days Later or the lengths that the heroin junkies of Trainspotting will go to for their next hit. Now add to that list what a man would do when stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or maybe it’s just a warning to always let your mother know where you’re going.