127 Hours

James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours

I’d sooner lose a finger than chop my own arm off. I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than chop off my own arm. In fact, chopping off my own arm comes pretty low on the list of things I’d like to do, along with shit-eating and talking about sex with my mother. But Aron Ralston in 127 Hours faces a choice altogether more stark: life or limb?

James Franco (of Spiderman fame) plays Aron Ralston, an engineer with a passion for climbing. He’s easygoing with a do-it-all attitude. He takes a trip to Utah, to mountain bike, hike and climb, but doesn’t inform anyone where he’s going. He slips while he’s climbing and gets trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. 127 hours later, he’s armless but free, with the aid of a blunt knife, and lives to climb another day.

It’s a true story which occurred in 2003 and in an interview, the real-life Aron Ralston, 35, said “The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. And what drama Danny Boyle has wrought is testament to his skill as a film-maker. This is Boyle’s tenth feature and follows his trend of character-driven movies, whether they’re an ensemble of heroin addicts in Trainspotting, a spoiled adventurer in The Beach, or the love-struck Jamal in the life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire.

Every one of his movies has energy and wit, a willingness to play with composition, texture and expectation. But the success of his latest owes as much to James Franco’s detailed and awe-inspiring performance as directorial technique. The movie has a curious style. From the beginning, Boyle makes use of all the tricks he has, with split screens, close focus shots of arbitrary things – tap water running, a Swiss army knife missed, and images of the inside of objects – the whir of a lens motor in a digital camera, the x-ray of a knife being plunged into bone. This and the super-vivid colours reminded me of the band Maroon 5’s hyper-slick, advert-style music video to ‘Sunday Morning’.

These tics and decorations are needed in a film with a bare-naked plot and mostly just one cramped setting. And it’s a film of lovely details. Images of ants being chased by the sun and in one superb sequence, we get a Gatorade reverie, with a lip-smacking shot of a shivering, sweating bottle of sugared liquid.

James Franco’s smile would probably be the smuggest smile in the world, if it were not so seductively likable. It radiates confidence and ease, and fits the glow of happy solitude that anyone who has ever gone hiking would recognise. But when the boulder falls and traps him, watch his face. His smile almost lingers, his eyes almost drool as they start to comprehend despair. It’s a microcosm of emotion and dawning realisation.

As background, we get flashbacks to Ralston’s childhood and mental replays of what could have been. Clemence Poesy has a small part as an ex-girlfriend and her prettiness is welcome in so rugged a film. When finally we get to what must be done, to what most audience members probably have come to expect as climax, the grisliness of the whole affair does not disappoint.

Using a crappy multi-tool with a crappy knife to slice his arm, it definitely gave me a sour taste of sharp pain and I’ll never think of tendons in the same way again. Franco acts of all this with a face that flickers, sniggers, grimaces and winces in all the right degrees, it’s as perfect a performance I have seen, and the director has filled the movie with just enough focus and distraction to balance narrative tension. The soundtrack works well with songs from Beck and Bill Withers used to good effect and A. R. Rahman‘s score, which changes from kinetic to quietly stirring, is one of his best.

Any moral one could draw from all this would be vapid. Be more prepared? Buy better knives when you go hiking? Don’t be so proud? Who cares. What Danny Boyle has managed to do is make something unfilmable flow in what almost feels like real time. I came out upbeat but not uplifted, and it was a good call not to show Ralston as any kind of superhero. His actions could have been repeated by any one of us, and yet could only really be his.

This is Ralston’s story and 127 Hours is not a film, it’s an experience.

5/5

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1 Response to “127 Hours”


  1. 1 Heloísa Flores January 28, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Looks like a really good film. I like adventure/drama movies, and the psychological pressure and conflict about having to chop off your own arm looks very interesting to me.

    Great review, your first 5/5 this soon? I was not expecting this of you, hah…


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