There are two kinds of people in the world, those who like survival stories and those who don’t. You won’t have to be one or the other to appreciate the stunning exclamation point Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours leaves in the paragraph that is your life. There is no ambiguity here, no need to stray from the task at hand: this is life or death.
In 2003 Aron Ralston took off into the wilds of Utah completely alone. He didn’t think he had anything to worry about. He was young, he was strong, he was a volunteer rescuer. What could possibly threaten him? He was, in mind, body and spirit, a superman. Water, food, climbing rope, a few low tech tools, a video camera, music – these are the things we bring us when he decide to drop in on nature. We think that our tools mean we are well prepared for the unpredictable. We forget in our arrogance that we fall into the food chain, that we ARE nature too.
With his trademark flair for exuberance, Boyle opens the film with a triptych of film strips – because most of the film takes place in a stone fissure with James Franco’s gorgeous, welcoming face, Boyle eats up every second of time before that with his heartstopping hip-hopping frame by frame. People running, a hand reaching for a Swiss Army knife, a phone call – ordinary things that happen at a breakneck speed for an active mountaineer like Ralston was. Nothing can slow him down. He does it because it’s there. He does it because he can’t stop. He does it because he can.
He drives until he has to sleep. He sleeps in his car because he doesn’t need no stinking tent. The morning comes and boom – he’s on his mountain bike pounding the 20 mile trail near the canyon he calls his “second home”. He is a man deeply connected to the natural world and he survives it. That’s because of the things he brings with him, and extraordinary luck that allows him this addiction. Until it doesn’t.
To say any more about the plot would spoil what is surely one of the most meaningful experiences you will have in a movie theater this year or any other. The bottom line is this – and it isn’t a spoiler because it’s a true story – Aron Ralston is finally stopped when a boulder rolls down a crevice with him and traps his arm against a rock wall. We know what happens several slow moving, agonizing days later when he must break and then cut his arm off to save his own life.
These are the facts and they are undisputed.
Like most true stories told this year, it takes an artist of Boyle’s exceptional talent to take this story of solo survival and broaden it so that it is the bigger story of man vs. nature. Man being part of nature is as vulnerable to it as any other creature, maybe even more so. We have our brains and our brains give us the common sense to remember to bring stuff. We are nothing with our stuff. Our brains are our best survival tool. Life in a Utah canyon has evolved there over millions of years. Those little ants survive because the ones who couldn’t didn’t.
Any animal will fight to save its life. Is it any question, then, that Ralston would do what had to be done? No, there isn’t any question. Any human being with a brain would attempt it. His genius, though, was in knowing how to survive it. It is a matter of knowing how to cut off the blood flow, how to break the bones because the dull knife he brought along couldn’t cut them. He would have died there otherwise.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent a more riveting or emotionally moving hour and a half in the theater as I did last night watching 127 Hours. It confirms what I already knew about Danny Boyle: that he is a genius visually, intellectually, emotionally. He knows that it isn’t just the story of how Ralston got out of that canyon; it’s that key bit of truth we all must remind ourselves of everyday: life is not lived alone. We need each other. We need to be able to ask for help.
127 Hours can’t be talked about, though, without acknowledging its star. Who knew James Franco was capable of this? I certainly didn’t. He does two things – he plays Aron Ralston in voice and manner. But he also takes us into his array of emotions during this experience. It is all on Franco and he nails it.¬† He captures the arrogance, humility, anger, grief, fear, desperation better than I’ve seen any actor do in a similar role. And he is going to be Colin Firth’s biggest threat.
Now, about “that scene.” Much has been made of the bloody arm mishegoss. People were supposedly passing out and having seizures. 911 was called. It’s possible that it was too intense for some, but that has less to do with the graphic nature of the severed arm and more to do with the emotional intensity of the film: you feel like you might die along with him and so you are stresses beyond belief.
Although I don’t know if I’ll ever revisit 127 Hours — there are parts of it I must see again – the vivid beginning and the heart-wrenching climax. But can I endure the middle? I don’t know. What I know is this: I won’t forget this film, not ever.¬† As someone who ruminates on life, death and survival, it does stick me in the right places. But beyond that, I remain stunned and awed at Danny Boyle’s gifts as a filmmaker. He must be a great person, an incredible lover, and someone with such an expansive view of the world that it gives him balls-out confidence; he is assured in what he does and in command of every frame.
So far, 2010 has brought some of the most vivid and unforgettable films I think I’ve seen in the past decade. Inception, The Social Network and now, 127 Hours. Here’s to hoping the rest of them are that good.