Sunday, November 21, 2010

It Rocks: 127 Hours

If you’re like me, when you first heard about Aron Ralston’s harrowing ordeal in a Utah canyon in 2003, it struck you as something out of a movie. Thus, there was little doubt that eventually Ralston’s experience would be retold on the big screen. And a few years later, here we are. 127 Hours chronicles the five days and change that Ralston spent with his arm pinned between a rock and, yeah, a hard place, only to escape by leaving his arm behind. But as inevitable as this movie seemed, particularly after Ralston recounted his experiences in a book, as soon as we see Ralston’s right hand and forearm become wedged between a boulder and a canyon wall, 127 Hours starts to feel like a tremendously bad idea. Because at that point we know what’s ahead of us: a lot of waiting, a lot of suffering and, eventually, a lot of sawing with Ralston’s cheap multipurpose tool. 127 Hours isn’t the first movie to lead audiences toward a well-known conclusion or to spend almost its entire running time observing a mostly stationary character, but it might be the first movie to be saddled with both of those dramatic and cinematic restrictions. And once we realize that, it becomes clear that director Danny Boyle is stuck between a rock and a hard place, too. So when I say that 127 Hours is an incredible achievement for a director working with one hand tied behind his back, that’s what I mean.

Boyle directs 127 Hours according to his signature sensibilities, which over the course of his career have proven to be alternately irritating and dazzling. Predictably for a Boyle film, in 127 Hours the cuts are frequent, camera angles are many and the soundtrack is lively. Surprising though, given the subject matter, the tone of the film is warm and optimistic. In a movie about a guy who drinks his own urine and cuts off his arm, healthy doses of pain and suffering are unavoidable, but in telling Ralston’s story Boyle uses those episodes of misery as the marinade that sweetens our big juicy bites of triumph later on. Yes, just like we know that Ralston will eventually amputate his own arm, we also know that he will escape. And so Boyle wisely embraces the narrative’s foregone conclusion and in doing so shifts our focus away from Ralston’s escape – and, more importantly, the means of that escape – in order that we might appreciate Ralston’s entire experience; hence the brilliantly blunt title. In almost any other movie, those 127 hours would refer to the amount of time the hero has until disaster arrives, but here they refer to the amount of time the hero spends in the midst of catastrophe. Instead of being a countdown, it’s a count-up. Boyle implies that before we ask ourselves whether we could lop off our own arm to save ourselves, we should ask whether we could survive the five days that led up to that point. 127 Hours isn’t about desperate measures in desperate times. It’s about perseverance.

It’s also about the importance of community. 127 Hours opens with a split-screen montage of shoulder-to-shoulder seas of humanity juxtaposed with shots of Ralston (James Franco) in his apartment hastily packing his camping and hiking equipment on a Friday evening in an effort to get on the road for a weekend in the wild. In each crowd shot – daily commuters on escalators, runners in the first mile of a marathon, spectators at a packed sports arena, etc. – we feel the claustrophobia of city life and understand Ralston’s eagerness to flee into the great outdoors. But while 127 Hours does its fair share of wilderness romanticizing – delighting in scenes of Ralston biking across rocky plateaus, plunging into sapphire blue waters or basking in the warmth of the morning sun – the film is critical of the way Ralston shuns society. The opening montage is scored to Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again,” which through the refrain “Take it!” equates Ralston’s outdoor adventuring adrenaline rushes with drug highs. Over the course of the film it becomes clear that Ralston is a lot like a common addict, putting his own self-fulfillment before relationships with others, even before common sense. He has spent his life flirting with disaster, and justifying his own recklessness. So when Ralston finds himself at, well, rock bottom, and no one else is around to go for help, and no one knows where he is, 127 Hours suggests that Ralston has no one but himself to blame. His sin isn’t failing to pack a sharper knife. It’s believing that he doesn’t need anyone else.

Ralston doesn’t realize the error of his ways the moment the boulder lands on his arm; it’s something that occurs to him gradually over those five long days. Boyle’s triumph is his ability to suggest the excruciating strain of that monotonous experience without allowing the drama to feel sedentary. 127 Hours includes a few brief outside-the-canyon flashbacks, but mostly Boyle keeps his camera focused on his subject, jumping between variously angled close-ups. One view is provided by Ralston’s camcorder, through which the protagonist provides some helpful plot exposition (noting his time in the canyon and making it clear that no one knows where he is) and explicit updates on his frame of mind. I have no idea whether the camcorder is historically accurate or merely a dramatic construct, but since it keeps Ralston from developing a relationship with a piece of sporting goods equipment, ala Tom Hanks in Cast Away, I’m all for it. Plus, by using the camcorder to show Ralston’s self-aware personality, some of Boyle’s other camera angles seem to peek beyond Ralston’s defenses, thus increasing the film’s intimacy.

And that brings us to Franco’s performance, which is so low key that it would be easy to take for granted. A less nuanced actor would have felt the need to convey all those big, Oscar-baiting emotions that the boulder already sums up – pain, fear, shock, desperation. Instead, Franco evokes charm, courage, regret and determination. His performance is affecting but restrained. And, actually, that’s a good explanation for Boyle’s approach to the amputation scene, which I found surprisingly subdued. Don’t get me wrong: it’s difficult to watch (I get a bitter taste in my mouth just thinking about it), but it’s far from exploitive, and it’s clearly not the moment that attracted Boyle to this story. The film’s emotional highpoint isn’t Ralston freeing himself from the rock but the moment later on when he comes into contact with people, thereby reconnecting with the society that he’d been so eager to leave behind. When Ralston makes his dehydrated, life-affirming stagger back toward civilization to the tune of Sigur Ros’ “Festival” – a song now destined to score numerous highlight reels and maybe a Nike ad – it makes for one of the most moving moments in cinema this year, perfectly marrying a musical crescendo with an emotional one. And so it is that this movie about a guy who removes part of his body winds up making us feel whole.


Richard Bellamy said...

Glad to hear that this movie is such an effective and compelling one. (I was hoping it would be.) You had expressed doubts about it before seeing it. I will see it as soon as it comes to the Cape or as soon as I can get up to Cambridge. It's all Harry Potter here.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes it 'rocks' as you say, and yes it's about 'perseverence.' All the filmic elements converge here (Boyle's visceral filmmaking, Mantle's vivid cinematography, Rahman's pulsating score) and perhaps most compellingly Franco's lead performance to produce a film of astounding depth and a worthy follow-up to the award-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Beautifully penned essay.

Richard Bellamy said...

In each crowd shot – daily commuters on escalators, runners in the first mile of a marathon, spectators at a packed sports arena, etc. – we feel the claustrophobia of city life and understand Ralston’s eagerness to flee into the great outdoors. Yes, this is true, but I also feel these and other images (many of them are competitions) suggest that Ralston is motivated by a sense of self-competitiveness that pushes so many achievers in our culture to win the gold, make the million, or be the first to the top of the mountain. Ralston demonstrates this when he speeds out of the city and then gets on his bike and attempts to beat his record getting to where he's going by 45 minutes. He's in a big hurry to reach isolation, but he's also always competing with himself, pushing himself overconfidently. Part of the contest for him is doing it all alone, and that's his undoing.

I enjoyed your review and I agree that this story, as well as Boyle's filmmaking, makes us whole.

Unknown said...

Another terrific review!
I agree that it is predictable and you know he'll get out of it but it is about how he makes it out that gets you engaged with the film. The flashback structure was fine and Franco really pulled it off.