127 HOURS (2010) (***1/2)
This true-life survival story makes you wonder how you would handle the same situation. If you were trapped in a remote canyon could you cut off your own arm with a dull blade? Danny Boyle's film puts the viewer in that situation with all its physical and mental challenges. This is the rare thriller with an existential thread.
James Franco plays Aron Ralston, an experienced hiker, who took off by himself to hike Blue John Canyon in Utah. Even though he was a member of the search and rescue team, he told no one where he was going. While climbing down he canyon, a boulder broke loose and crushed his right forearm, pinning him between the rock and canyon wall. Chipping away at or trying to move the rock quickly proved futile. The title tells us how long he was stuck there with little food and water. His multi-tool was dull and could barely scratch his skin, so when he got desperate enough he broke the bones in his arm and used the pliers to snap the stronger tendons.
Director Danny Boyle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) puts the viewer into that experience. You might have read the reports of people fainting during screenings. While the film gets bloody, Boyle is not gratuitous about the gore. He makes us cringe, but the sound of breaking bones is more twitch inducing than the bloody images that anyone could see on a TV surgery show. To completely avoid the gruesome details of the story would have cheated Ralston's accomplishment. His will for survival is inspiring. Remember he did what he did while delirious and then needed to rappel down a 65-foot sheer wall and walk miles back to his stick shift truck.
These are the sensational facts of his ordeal, but its some of the other details that really got me thinking about how I'd fare in the same situation. How do you handle being pinned where you are virtually dangling from your smashed arm? How would you sleep? How do you retrieve a tool you've dropped? How do you prepare for cutting off your arm and not bleed to death? Ralston's climbing and survival skills ultimately saved his life. Boyle and Simon Beaufoy's script does an excellent job of building one set back on another, showing how Ralston had to keep learning.
Besides transporting us into the physical experience of Ralston, Boyle puts us into his mental state. Using confessions to a camcorder, we get inside Ralston's slipping Mind frame. On his way to Blue John, he met two pretty hikers Kristi (Kate Mara, SHOOTER) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn, THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS). He took them on a side adventure and they invite him to a party that night. They wonder if he'll show up. He wonders what if he just went with them instead. The more desperate the situation gets he begins thinking about his loved ones. He remembers ex-girlfriend Rana (Clemence Poesy, HARRY POTTER), which becomes a poignant contemplation of "the one that got away." Close to the end of his ordeal he starts having visions of a boy on a sofa (Peter Joshua Hull); not until the end credits do we know exactly who the boy is. The ambiguity works one way when we first see it and then gains a new power once we know exactly what we were seeing.
Franco is asked to carry the film pretty much on his own and he handles the load without breaking a sweat. It's hard to imagine him not earning his first Oscar nomination. He captures the physical and mental extremes naturally, but it's the subtler emotions that are the most impressive. The harsh regret he feels for being what he calls the hard hero and not telling people where he was going is powerful. The sequence where he jokingly conducts a mock talk show to the camcorder adds a needed touch of humor, ending with a note of sobering poignancy.
Boyle uses stylistic flashes to good extent. Split screens at the beginning define the fast paced and ease of the modern world. Ralston shuffling around in a cabinet looking for something works as a nice foreshadow. The pacing of Ralston starting his expedition has a reckless feel with its quick cuts and hard music. Watch how Boyle works in close-ups of Ralston's hand running across the canyon walls. The timing of the title reveal is one of the best ever.
The film reminded me of the harrowing doc TOUCHING THE VOID, which featured nerve-wrenching recreations of climbers trapped on a frozen mountain. That film was more haunting while this one is more ponderous. Maybe too ponderous at times. That said the film does ponder about how life is too short and that being a hard hero on a solo mission leaves us stuck in a canyon all alone.