There’s a peculiar type of anxiety that film can elicit in me. It’s peculiar because on one hand, I completely understand that I’m choosing to suspend my disbelief. On the other hand, if the movie is particularly well crafted, and the director understands how to push my buttons, as it were, the anxiety is nearly unavoidable.
Danny Boyle is one of those directors. He finely tunes his films to play my emotions like he knows them better than I do. This is, of course, one of the greatest attributes of his films for those that want to experience more of the human emotional spectrum than can be provided by standard theater fare. So in 127 Hours, you must, absolutely, be prepared to test your movie-going threshold.
Unless you were living in a cave or monastery in 2003, the story of Aron Ralston should be at least, vaguely familiar. GQ recognized him as a Man of the Year, Vanity Fair named him a Person of the year. But if you weren’t aware, he was hiking alone in Utah when a boulder pinned down his arm. He was stuck there for 127 hours, and eventually, he cut his own arm off, and saved his life. What this film does is take words off the page, headlines from the news (things that can’t help but dehumanize a very humanistic story), and show in a much more overt, and uncomfortable way, what happened to Ralston.
Ralston wrote the book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which is actually quite compelling. So much so, it’s understandable why Boyle and Simon Beaufoy wanted to adapt it for the large screen. It’s certainly inevitable to avoid flashbacks when making a feature film where the protagonist is totally restricted from other characters and more than geographic location. But Boyle manages to tone down the aggravation that can be caused by relying too much on the device. Instead of literally showing things that had happened in the past, it’s left up to the viewer to determine whether what we’re seeing is simply Ralston’s hallucinations, premonitions, memories, or a mixture of all three. One particularly enjoyable string of these sequences involves what seems to be an ex-girlfriend, played by the lovely Clémence Poésy.
At one point, there is an extended sequence that shows Ralston freed from the rock and making his way to safety. Usually, this technique is reserved for stories where the outcome isn’t known. Since ninety percent of people going into the theatre will know exactly where the film is headed, it’s unclear why this took up screen time. Perhaps it’s a literal fantasy that Ralston experienced.
Unavoidably, Boyle leads his audience up to the moments where Ralston must severe his arm. While I don’t want to down play the intensity of the scene (I did squirm a bit in my seat), it should be clear, that his self-mutilation was handled as modestly as self-mutilation can be handled–a testament to Boyle’s faith in his own skill. No one would have cried foul had this not been the case. However, an exposed nerve and the alarming necessity of cutting through it with a dull, Chinese-fabricated knife will provides no shortage of distress.
While the majority of focus on 127 Hours will be on this one single act, it’s not difficult to remember that what Danny Boyle, and probably Ralston himself, wanted to do with the film, is to celebrate human life, the drive to stay alive, and more idioms about overcoming adversity. The film is anything but a tired cliche, though. It’s brutal and honest. It’s difficult to watch, but at the same time, it’s inspirational without couching the message with soft, and flabby platitudes.
With superb acting and equally as good direction, 127 Hours is a true triumph in filmmaking.