Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Rooney Mara, Lizzy Caplan, Kate Burton & Clémence Poésy
By Alex Towers
When I was 7 I trapped my hand in the inkwell hole on one of those old school desks. After a loud “uh-oh” my friend Ian turned to me and shook his head sadly saying “They will have to chop your arm off”.
They didn’t as it turned out, Mrs. Young freed me using a combination of fairy liquid and steely disregard for children’s pain. But there was a moment where Ian’s prediction did briefly occupy my naïve seven-year-old mind and that I actually might lose my arm to be free of the desk. And although the context was slightly different, this exact same thought occurred to climber Aron Ralston when he became trapped under a boulder in Utah in 2003.
127 Hours is Danny Boyle’s telling of Ralston’s story. But Boyle is known for his fast-paced films such as Trainspotting. Sunshine, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire and choosing to adapt Ralston’s bestselling memoir (The humorously titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”) into a 94-minute film is surprising. Ralston’s story is set almost entirely in a narrow crevasse, his arm pinned under a dislodged boulder. Not the kind of source material that lends itself to Boyle’s globetrotting, hyper-visual style.
However the story constrictions actually work in Boyle’s favor: with nothing other than a trapped man to focus on, the director finds unique ways to explore his situation using flashbacks, dreams and unusual focuses shots (we see water sucked through a straw from inside the straw- similar to the needle-view of Renton shooting heroin in Trainspotting). Much like Rodrigo Cortes recent Buried, Boyle ensures that 127 Hours, never feels like 127 hours and instead delivers a zippy, beautiful story with as much poignancy as humor.
The film opens on the carefree Aron Ralston (a faultless James Franco) haphazardly preparing for a weekend of hiking through the gorgeous Blue John Canyon in Utah. He stuffs his backpack with Gatorade, a water bottle, video camera, multi-tool and chicken burrito while Boyle intercuts the scene with the dreary masses making their way to their dull jobs on subways and buses. It’s a great opening, and Boyle shows canny musical taste through using Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again” as Ralston flees his city apartment and makes for Utah.
Boyle also treats us to a swift introduction to Ralston as he begins his hike: we see him crashing his bike, leaping casually over chasms and charming the pants off two pretty hikers (Rooney Mara & Amber Tamblyn) whom he takes for a death-defying dip in a tropical cave-lake.
This means Ralston is presented as slapdash as he is charming: you like him, but you know he’s going to be in trouble. Sure enough it’s not long before Ralston makes one careless move too many and pulls a boulder down on top of himself, beginning his 127 hour long spell.
With no mobile phone and no one (including the recently abandoned hikers) knowing exactly where he is, Ralston childish amusement at his situation soon turns into desperate worry. His experience means he knows the water he has will only two days yet his carelessness means he didn’t bring more. Early on in his ordeal he removes the cheap leatherman-lite multi-tool and presses it gently against his trapped arm, almost as if he knows what he will ultimately have to do.
But the film swerves away from being a tragic ordeal thanks largely to the luminous James Franco. I’ve never really though Franco deserved his cultural mainstay (it was recently announced he will be hosting the Oscars). But here he displays a talent never before seen in the Spiderman movies or his Seth Rogen outings.
Holding the screen for almost the entirety of the film, Franco brings warmth to an inherently immature character. After dropping his knife (that he was using to vainly chip away at the boulder) he uses a stick and his own outstretched leg to retrieve it, issuing a childlike “sweet!” when he does. Later, the Scooby-Doo theme plays ominously in his head as he tries to stave off the cold. The video camera he carries with him serves as a supporting character- allowing him to record some heartfelt goodbyes and relive the adventures of his first day hiking. Even when saddled with schmaltzy flash-backs or tiring dream sequences, Franco is the key to the film working so well.
Boyle however should also be credited. He manages to craft a thoroughly moving film that only dips into over-sentimentality once. His music choices should also be congratulated-particularly an ironic Bill Wither’s Lovely Day as Ralston pounds the boulder in vain desperately screaming.
But the scene that will have people taking about is the inevitable makeshift amputation. After poking and prodding for most of the film, Ralston decides in his delirious and near death state to hack (and I do mean hack) his trapped arm off using the blunt multi-tool. Boyle’s camera doesn’t flinch, showing the digging out and severing of nerves, veins and arteries and the slow slice through flesh set to violent bursts of static noise and the increasingly panicked mantra “don’t pass out”. It’s one of the most disgusting and disturbing scenes I have seen for a while. However in an amusing nod to our generations self-obsession, once Ralston has detached his arm he takes out his camera to take a picture of the still trapped bloody stump- presumably for his facebook page.
But don’t let this once scene put you off going to 127 Hours. It’s a thrilling, ultimately uplifting and real-life tale that stands right up there with Trainspotting on Boyle’s c.v. and Franco’s performance will hopefully mean he’s rewarded amply-even if he’s hosting the show. 127 Hours is undoubtedly a draining film, but also very rewarding one.
The Trailer to 127 Hours