February 11, 2011 Leave a comment
Let’s get the preliminary concerns out of the way. 127 Hours is not for the squeamish, the faint of heart, or for those who can’t stand James Franco for extended periods of time. Franco, in all his Franco-ness, carries this film onscreen. The rest of the heavy lifting come from the minimalist and thankfully restrained script and the masterful directing. Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, who co-wrote the script for this, were also the creative team behind Slumdog Millionaire. And with Boyle’s steady hand directing 127 Hours the film becomes not merely the story of a man stuck between a rock and a hard place (as the source material indicates) or a massive gross-out sequence, but a film that is memorable and at its best life-affirming and a celebration of the human spirit.
But before we get to any celebrations, we’ve got to contend with the great challenge that the human spirit, in this case Franco’s Aron Ralston, is faced with. A boulder, a crevice, and the specter of death looming.
In literature classes we’re taught that there are three basic conflicts, Man vs. Others, Man vs. Himself, and Man vs. Nature. 127 Hours has us watching as two out of these three unfold. And thanks to the opening shots and fantasy sequences, we are made painfully aware of the loud, densely populated world of man, so much so that we understand why an adventurer and a daredevil such as Ralston would want to get away from it all and do his own thing out in the wilderness. We too are implicated in our seats as we wish that there were something we could do, and more importantly we find ourselves thinking indeed what we would do if faced with such a situation.
After opening sequences that establish Ralston as a cocky and capable climber who can also be a charmer, we are plunged into the crevice where we will spend the duration of the film. Ralston misjudges a rock and it comes free, crashing down and crushing his right hand under it. He can’t lift it and he can’t get free.
So we bear witness to the grueling, excruciating ordeal that Ralston went through. No way to contact anyone, no chance of people coming to rescue him, and in a stunning shot that starts close in on Ralston and zooms out to show the expanse of wilderness surrounding him, no chance that any of his screaming will do any good.
All of this is brought to life by Boyle, Beaufoy, and Franco, who manage to mix the right amounts of hope and despair, of regret and exhilaration, as Ralston struggles with the boulder weighing him down as he faces all of the weight of the past that he has brought with him into the crevice. There are flashbacks and trick fantasy sequences (the Scooby Doo cameo is a killer) and though some come dangerously close to gimmickry, the film manages to keep us going along and invested in Ralston, hoping that there is some way out of his predicament other than the resolution that has been much promoted.
It’s one of the movie’s strengths that even though we know how things will turn out (this was, of course, a publicized event and then a book which was the source material for the film) we are still invested in the film. It’s not what happens, but how it all happens.
There’s a lot of visual flair here, and the extreme close up shots of things like the water in the thermos and the camel pack show how editing and effects work to convey and intensify the situation. The rolling clouds that lead to a storm come with a striking ferocity. And the touches of sunlight that peek through the crevice provide us with something to look forward to.
127 Hours employs a lot of things that dangerously approach cliche. There are the flashbacks showing Ralston’s youth, his family, a love marred by regret. Then there is the imagery, especially that of light, which serves as a metaphor throughout the film. And yet because of how grounded the experience is in reality, and how these are utilized in the film, they come to take on their own meaning.
More important than all that is that 127 Hours tells us a story that we cannot forget. It keeps us involved , makes us care about Ralston. It’s not just about him getting out of there, it’s about his maintaining his mental toughness so that he can get it together and get out of it. Franco does a great job of showing how due to what’s happening, lack of food, water, and sometimes hope, Ralston’s mind teeters on a very dangerous precipice. So we explore the physical and mental issues that threaten Ralston.
And then we get to the big scene, the scene that has reportedly driven some viewers to faint. Yes, it is gruesome and horrible. Not as particularly sick as any dismemberings or decapitations or torture sequences we commonly see in horror or action scenes. Not as much blood as your usual action flick either. Yet, because of its being grounded in reality it is so much more painful and in-your-face.
127 Hours is intense in all aspects. Visuals, music, story, acting, directing, all of it is superb. What makes it even better, I think, is that we don’t really notice how great all of these things are, they never draw attention to themselves, because all of these are done in the service of the story. It’s a story to be experienced because it is so powerful, and Boyle and his team do an amazing job of turning this story into an unforgettable experience.