I have never been compelled to use the word triumphant when writing about a film until now. It was the first word that came to mind at the conclusion of Danny Boyle‘s latest film, 127 Hours. Based on the story of Aron Ralston, the trapped hiker who cut off his own arm to save himself, both the story itself and Boyle’s adaptation are nothing less than triumphant.
In 2003, hiking alone in Utah, Ralston (James Franco) slips when climbing down a small ravine when a boulder he grabs for support gives way. This same boulder pins his right arm against the rock wall. With only one bottle of water, a burrito, flashlight, watch, climbing rope, video camera, and an all-purpose utility knife, Ralston has no means of escape. Alone in the desert and without a cell phone (no signal any way), no one can hear him call for help. As the hours pass, he realizes he cannot escape. As the days pass, he realizes that he will die there. No matter how hard he tries, he can neither budge the boulder nor pull himself free. Over five days, he records messages to family members and friends, replays the events that lead him to this place, reflects on his life, and fights to stay alive, managing his food and water intake and even drinking his own urine. About midway through his ordeal, he actually stabs his arm in an early test of what is to come. After five days of desperation, he does what any of us would do in that situation.
This is the brilliance of Boyle’s film. Upon hearing Ralston’s story, many people no doubt say that they could never or would never do that. However, Boyle and, in large part, Franco show that, in fact, we all would. Franco gives perhaps one of his best performances to date. Trapped between the rock and the wall, he takes the audience through a roller-coaster of emotions and amazingly, yet convincingly, embodies the sense of fear, despair, anguish, hope and determination necessary to undertake what is essentially a base, animal act. In this sense, the story is a triumph of both the human spirit and the will to survive.
Yet the film is triumphant on another level. Boyle’s daringness to adapt Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, is in itself a triumph. He takes a story that we all know, one with an ending like no other and makes it a riveting viewing experience. In an article for Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris argued that people will go see the film to watch a guy cut off his own arm. This may be true, but the payoff is much more rewarding. The gut-wrenching scene lasts maybe a minute or two of the film’s 90+ minute run time. That Boyle makes us forget about it, or at least lose our anticipation of it, is a thing of directorial genius. Boyle’s direction and cinematography by Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle capture the beauty and danger of the solitude that Ralston sought and needed rescue from. Again, an equal share of praise goes to Franco who grabs our attention immediately with a suprising mix of humor and that emotional ride.
What makes Boyle’s adaptation of Ralston’s story so successful (I have not Ralston’s book) is that it becomes a surprising meditation on human connectedness and our need for it. This is, to put it lightly, the ecological Social Network. Apparently, Ralston find himself in this position because of his selfish, loner personality. He never let anyone know where he was going, and it is clear that he was alone well before he was trapped by the boulder. What Ralston realizes is what Boyle shows in the opening credits and in the hallucinations that Ralston has while trapped…we are a social animal. Ralston’s recognition of this is just as touching and moving as the amputation is gruesome.
Not since 2003’s Touching the Void has a survival film, of which we all already know the outcome, been so compelling. So if you’re going to see the film to watch a man cut off his own arm, good for you. At least you’ll get to see what is arguably one of the best films of the year. If you’re staying away from it because of the amputation, go any way. By the time Boyle gets you there, you won’t be able to look away.
127 Hours (94 mins) is rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images and is in theaters everywhere.