Film Review – 127 Hours (Second Take)

Aron Ralston is an American hiker and mountain climber. In the summer of 2003, Ralston decided to take a trip by himself to the Blue John Canyon in Utah. Ralston did not tell anyone where he was going. He wanted to be alone, to test himself against the elements and against nature. Nature bestowed on him the opportunity, and on this particular occasion Ralston was the victim of a strange and tragic accident, getting his arm caught between a boulder and a crevice wall. His arm was so trapped that after five days of pushing and pulling his arm had not moved even a fraction. Aron Ralston was alone out in the deserts of Utah, too far away to hope for any passersby to come to his rescue. Aron Ralston resorted to cutting his own arm off in order to survive. Aron Ralston is a real human being and this really happened. This is 127 Hours.

I’ve known about Aron Ralston for awhile now. This in itself is not strange, since he made the talk show rounds after his shocking story came to light. But I didn’t know of him through the talk shows. I lived for two years in Yosemite National Park in California, one of the great wildernesses of America. The people who worked in the park were adventurers, like Ralston. Very few tested themselves to the extremes that were common to Ralston, but all of us loved and respected nature—its beauty and its ferocity. Names like Aron Ralston were commonly spoken in the park. Christopher McCandless, Joe Simpson, Simon Yates…these were names spoken in a kind of reverence and awe. These were the ones who lived the worst case scenario and, against all odds, returned to us. There was fear in these recountings as well, the knowledge that a man like Aron Ralston was just one of many who, on this particular trip, played the odds and lost.

But “losing” is a matter of perception, and Danny Boyle, the visionary director of 127 Hours (not to mention Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire), presents us Ralston’s story as not just a tactile recreation of the events but a dreamlike exploration of who this man is, where he’s come from and what he wants. Written by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, this is probably the best script that Boyle has yet worked with. They knew what this story was and what it wanted to be, sanding its rough edges away until the sharp and brilliant angles underneath shone through like a diamond. This is piercing and insightful storytelling.

And Boyle does great justice to the story. A more formal and austere director would have made this a study in fortitude, and the resulting movie could have been torturous film-going. But Boyle’s pace and cinematography, and his playfulness, keep the movie exciting. You’ll be forced to put yourself into the situation and ask hard questions of yourself, and you’ll marvel at Ralston’s ingenuity every step of the way. There are scenes that will make you squirm, but there are also the beautiful moments. We feel Ralston’s thirst, the grit of dust in his teeth, the taste of blessedly cool water, the warmth of that slash of sunlight on the skin. This is a movie about savoring the small moments, and they become as important to the viewer as they were to Ralston. Boyle has always embraced the digital look and the tricks they have afforded filmmakers, but what has always separated him from his peers is how he makes these digital elements cinematic. They work wonders here in making this story a modern-day man vs. nature account that feels alive and accessible in wonderful ways.

The film is also helped by James Franco, who continues his transformation into a remarkable actor of quirky and quixotic roles. This is the trajectory he was always meant for, before the Hollywood Marketing Machine tried to pass him off to us as a leading man in the traditional sense. Ralston is the perfect role for Franco, a lead character who’s all eccentricity and exuberance. He conveys the spirit of wanderlust, and one feels Franco is not merely acting. When the film takes us through Ralston’s darkest moments, Franco doesn’t hesitate or shrink from the task, and these scenes prove to be some of the most effective.

In many ways, 127 Hours beats the odds, just like Ralston did. It could have been too intense for enjoyable viewing, but instead it’s exciting. It could have been distant and cold, but it’s heartwarming. It could have been boring, but it’s endlessly inventive. It could have been bleak, but instead it’s an affirmation of life and man’s ability to persevere. It could have been a marginal bid for awards consideration, but instead 127 Hours is one of the best film of the year.

Final Grade: A