It’s funny how two of 2010’s best films bloomed from box-office poison. A nerdy misanthrope writing computer code followed by courtroom depositions: boring. A lone hiker stranded in a desolate crevice for a weekend: sounds more like a Discovery Channel TV special. Place it in the right hands, though, and the geeky procedural drama soars into David Fincher’s thrilling The Social Network, and the one-man-and-a-rock show turns into Danny Boyle’s inventive 127 Hours.
Just as critics found Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network a scathing commentary on our disconnected, “status”-obsessed society, 127 Hours, too, uses the real life folly of Aron Ralston as means to a greater end, a reflection on our dual desires to tempt death and to flee it.
Assuming you read the paper or watched TV in 2003, it wouldn’t be too much of a spoiler alert to discuss the film’s bloody denouement. In fact, this story’s subtitle already gave it away, so you might as well keep reading. Ralston became an overnight sensation when he amputated his own arm, which had been pinned by a falling boulder while the 28-year-old was solo climbing in a remote part of the Moab desert. But the film is called 127 Hours, and we’re already nearing triple digits by the time of the brief (though, God, does it seem long) limb severing scene.
The rest of the film crawls into Ralston’s mind. James Franco brilliantly plays the main (and generally only) character, whose initial sole personality trait seems to be a startling arrogance. Ralston doesn’t return phone calls, deliberately hides his hiking plans from friends, and in general appears to just want to be left alone, unless you’re a cute fellow-hiker chick. Except, this being the new millennium and all, he’s obsessed with photographing and videoing himself, logging his great physical accomplishments, perhaps so that he can watch them over and over by himself in his lonely one-bedroom apartment.
Boyle takes great pains to show that this foolhardy self-sufficiency is the real reason Ralston ends up pinned, not, perhaps, the plain bad luck of a boulder dislodging and trapping you on the one day you forget your Swiss Army knife and cell phone. As viewers, we’re trapped in the crevice with Ralston, and almost as palpable as the tendon tearing and piss drinking is the utter frustration as Ralston plays back all his bad decisions over and over again. Why is he such a daredevil? Why didn’t he leave a note? Why didn’t he call his mom? Why didn’t he bring more water? Why did he break up with that hot foreign chick? Wait, what? Ralston’s self-exploration and fight with delirium provide the film with its most compelling, and even funniest, moments, as we delve inside the mental mechanics of a very popular category of American males: homo riskus.
Franco is perhaps more charming than the true Ralston deserves, but at least he’s watchable, even as he grows closer and closer to death. To keep the story, filmed mostly in a (staged) tiny crevice, from becoming too staid, Boyle and trusted cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle play with angles, film speed, and sound. In any other movie, these gimmicks might seem shallow, but here they keep the viewer engaged with a closed off, quiet character until the big snappy-snap.
Yes, the arm amputation, in which Ralston breaks his arm then hacks through his skin and muscle with a cheap pocketknife, is hurl-tastic, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Not to make viewers faint, but to highlight that, in the face of death, humans will choose desperate, even disfiguring, action. To paint Ralston as a singular hero, which this film does to some extent, seems wrong. To this viewer, he’s more like a stubborn jerk with balls, doing what he can to survive. It’s not heroic, but it’s true, and sometimes truth really does make the best story. •
Dir. Danny Boyle; writ. Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy (based on autobiography by Aron Ralston); feat. James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn (R)