127 Hours (2010): United States – directed by Danny Boyle
Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, some sexual content, one of the single most brutal moments in cinema history
Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) story is fascinating on its own. Much like Conviction [review here], it might be easy for a filmmaker to coast through the story, but 127 Hours manages to become something much more than just the story of a man forced to undergo extreme hardship to save his life. It becomes one of the most life-affirming films of the year.
That’s not to say it’s a feel-good movie, or an easy watch. On the contrary, the joy of life is so profound because of the pain and intense suffering that it takes to get there. This is the same principle many horror fans cite in defense of the genre. And 127 Hours, while not a standard horror flick, contains one of the single most graphic, brutal sequences in cinema history. Worse than the curb stomp in American History X, more painful than the eye slice in Un Chien Andalou, more realistic and visceral than most anything in Cannibal Holocaust. The only scene I can think of that might come close is a spine tingling stabbing in the Australian horror film Wolf Creek.
But the pivotal scene isn’t played for a gag, or to gross out the audience (though there were reports of ambulances being called to theaters at Toronto when it premiered) or for morbid thrills. No, instead it highlights the value of life, and the price that is worth paying in order to live another day.
The story might be familiar to anyone reading newspapers in 2003. Ralston, an avid outdoors-men, stumbled out of the Utah canyons missing most of an arm after being gone for five days. A freak accident had left his arm pinned between a rock and a canyon wall, and he was unable to move. He barely survived on the small amount of water that he had with him, and his incredible perseverance and determination. But something else happened, too, as he was left alone with his thoughts for 127 hours. Being forced to meditate, he uncovered his flaws and was forced to deal with them as he hung there, dying.
Here is where the film might have stalled and failed, as one man must command an audience’s attention alone for the majority of 94 minutes. But director Danny Boyle brings a high level of stylization to the proceedings, and A.R. Rahman’s intrusive score effectively energizes the film. The opening sequence plays like a piece of Koyaanisqatsi, the lives of people speeding around endlessly. Split screen views and a thumping beat highlight the narcissistic and energetic life Ralston lives. A couple reels into the film, after a run-in with some female hikers, Ralston finds himself alone, and the title screen finally appears. The silence after the incident is haunting.
Even after he’s trapped there are numerous flashbacks to important moments in his life, times he hurt people or memories of happy family times. With only his video camera as witness, he makes peace with people he has known, and with himself. The actual video is hidden away safely. I can hardly imagine watching it. And this is what makes the film so real, the knowledge that a person actually experienced it. This is what makes the pain of the moment so intense and unbearable. The thought of having to do the same to one’s own arm is mind-blowing. But it’s essential, as this pain is the rebirth, the reminder of the price that must sometimes be paid.
At times Boyle’s style gets in the way of the film, but this is the worst complaint. It is occasionally too noticeably a movie, and takes the viewer out of the experience. The soundtrack, too, sometimes becomes too intrusive. But, when necessary, the camera slows and the music fades and Ralston is left with himself, and the viewer is left with a man stuck in an impossible position. Franco is very good in the film’s only primary role. He captures the happy-go-lucky adventurer more effectively than the introspective soul in dire circumstances, but overall he is impressive. The natural scenery is also impressive, shot on location in Utah.
127 Hours is a painful reminder that life is worth living. It extracts the essence of why horror films make some viewers feel alive, and intensifies the feeling one hundredfold. But this isn’t a horror movie; the fact that it happened, and to a real person, and that it’s entirely grounded in reality makes it far more powerful than most horror films. The moment of truth is agonizing, visceral, and brutal, but also absolutely essential. 127 Hours is the most life-affirming and disturbing film of the year.