127 Hours, 2010.
Directed by Danny Boyle.
Starring James Franco.
Mountaineer Aron Ralston (James Franco) embarks on a remarkable adventure to save himself after a boulder traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah.
Lars von Trier once said that the director’s dream is to make a film about just one person, alone, in a room. Humbly conceding such a task as beyond his talents, von Trier made Antichrist, a film about two people in a room in a forest instead.
Aside from an encounter between our protagonist, Aaron Ralston (James Franco), and two female backpackers at the start of the film, 127 Hours is almost the one-person-in-a-room narrative von Trier dreams of. That is, if he dreams at all (I expect he’s more the up-all-night-screaming sort). “Almost” because Ralston isn’t in a room. He is trapped in an isolated canyon, hidden in the vastness of a Utah national park. This occurs on one of his, presumably frequent, weekend excursions. He makes these trips alone, not telling anyone of his plans. There is no malice in this attitude, or a sour relationship he seeks to escape. Ralston isn’t one of those complex film types, just selfish and immature.
The opening scene is dedicated to portraying such self-centredness. As he hastily rummages together climbing equipment in his flat, Ralston misses a phone call from his mother. He could have told her about his weekend trip, and then someone would know to send out a search party for him when he eventually becomes trapped in a canyon, his crushed arm wedged between a rock and a hard place. More importantly, though, he could have told her he loves her. Ralston misses another trick here, too. His outstretched arm passing over the sharp, metallic Swiss army knife hidden at the back of a cupboard. Perfect for bottle opening or arm severing.
Such selfishness initially makes it difficult to relate to Ralston. Sure he’s charming, but he grates with such hedonistic recklessness. So when he climbs through the earth’s deep cracks and a rock dislodges, falls, wedges his arm between it and the canyon wall, we feel no sympathy beyond that for his situation. We have the specifics – mid-twenties, male, rock-climber, trapped in a crevice – but we have no character to fully feel for.
The film continues like this for a little while longer, detailing Ralston’s injury, his rations and attempts to move the rock – the specifics of the situation. It is all quite entertaining, with Boyle’s cinematic energy whipping to quasi-flashbacks and fast cutting – funny, in a morbid way – but one would expect to feel more. There’s still the humour and rock music. Ralston has been stuck in a canyon for three days, yet it doesn’t feel serious, to him or us.
Then one morning, in a bout of cabin fever, Ralston positions his digital camcorder before him upon that tormenting rock. He looks a lot more haggard now, with his peeling lips and drained face; a lot less like the laughing, invincible adventurer a few days prior. Here, he stages a mock interview with himself, as though he were on a cheery morning news show. Boyle cuts the scene skilfully between the two personas Ralston creates: himself and the manic host. He self-interrogates his stupidity. Why didn’t I tell anyone I was going? Why am I no longer with my ex-girlfriend? Why didn’t I talk to my mum? Having Ralston reflect on these character flaws, the same ones that were so distancing before now, reveals a truly sympathetic and courageous man. He knows he needs to grow up.
The scene owes a great debt to Franco’s performance. His eyes become a lot deeper in those minutes. Otherwise, 127 Hours is visually very quick, with montages, dream sequences and kinetic zooms employed to give the static story an impossible pace, yet here the film pauses, along with Ralston, to evaluate the situation. It’s a crisis meeting, of sorts. Watch the film a second time, and the whole thing would probably seem even more foreboding.
There are some film images that remain burnt upon the retina. To loosely tie-in this article’s opening, one of these for me is a graphic shot of Willem Defoe ejaculating blood in Antichrist. It sometimes rudely interrupts my thoughts, uninvited. Wincing, I work on re-suppressing it. This is now joined with a shot from 127 Hours. When Ralston first attempts to sever his arm, he stabs it with a pair of pliers. Feeling bone, Ralston gives up disheartened, although he is only delaying the inevitable. During this sequence, there is a shot, almost a live x-ray of his arm, of the pliers slightly moving back and forth against the bone. Like finger nails on a chalkboard.
I should really call my mother.