No arm, no foul
Here we have the perfect movie for a Thanksgiving weekend. It’s about being trapped for several straight days and expecting to die. Or: When pressed, the hero of 127 Hours reflects with humility on the blessings of his life, setting an example of gratitude for all of us. Then, with a dull pocketknife, he amputates the part of himself that’s been pressed.
He is Aron Ralston, the 27-year-old mountaineer who in 2003 got so far away from it all in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon that he almost didn’t get back. After five days alone under an immovable boulder without nearly enough food or water or protective clothing or anesthesia, Ralston cut off his own arm and wriggled free. Later he wrote a book called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which director Danny Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy have adapted into 127 Hours. Now he is played by James Franco.
Lately we’ve had a lot of angles on Franco: as performance-artist soap star, as collector of higher degrees from good universities, as short-form fictioneer, as Saturday Night Live documentarian, as acquirer of Stephen Elliott’s Adderall Diaries, as Allen Ginsberg. It’s easy to see the rightness of his Ralston in 127 Hours when he’s first pinned down by that rock—grunting, heaving, muttering, “This is insane!” Then he lays out and takes stock of his supplies, which are few but which include, importantly, a video camera. Later, when graced with a fleeting shaft of sunlight, he reaches for it with everything he’s got. If any question remains about Franco’s gifts, maybe it is the question of how many future biographers will want that image for the covers of their books.
But before getting to that, there must be the introductory ministrations. The frantic split-screen opening. The propulsive throb of music from Free Blood (the band that frontman John Pugh quit Sacramento dance-punk favorite Chk-Chk-Chk to found). The usual speedy twitch of Boyle’s belabored style. We won’t need shots from inside Ralston’s water bottle, but we’ll get ’em just in case. And when that early, solitude-asserting point-of-view shot of a jet plane flying high overhead gets kaleidoscoped later on, well, so what if it ruins the simplicity, the piercing awareness, of the original image, right?
It was silly to hope for an ascetic presentation from the director whose reputation tent poles include Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting. That’s like getting trapped under a boulder in Bluejohn Canyon and expecting prompt rescue from a passerby. There generally are no passersby. Just like there generally isn’t much quiet time in a Danny Boyle film. But there is some, maybe enough, in 127 Hours.
And anyway, some bustle up front is appropriate. This is, after all, a film about a rather imperiously hyper young man who came to stillness very suddenly and very much against his will. A young man whose narration of his own adventure, as told to his trusty video camera, goes from, “Just me, music and the night—love it!” to “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life.” Yes, with dialogue like that, it really helps to have a good actor.
During that progress, such as it is, Franco’s Ralston mockingly interrogates himself. He thinks back on a quick, flirtatious frolic with a pair of female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) whose path he’d crossed just before his predicament, and on the family and friends who’ve meant the most to him—including a girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) he regrets giving up. Thankfully, Boyle does figure out that his movie’s best dynamics are in Franco’s face: the mischief in his eyes getting clobbered into forlornness, then swimming in delirium, then setting into resolve.
As for the pivotal scene, suffice to say Boyle has not skimped on the details, and they’re not pleasant. For instance, before cutting the arm off, Ralston had to break both of its bones. One at a time. The sound alone made somebody in my audience gag. And that’s saying nothing of the visuals. Saying nothing of the visuals seems like a good idea, so I’ll only add a caution to choose your 127 Hours concessions carefully; Twizzlers are not advised. Feeling thankful?