“127 Hours” (2010), directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight, 93 minutes.
If you’ve been avoiding 127 Hours because you’re squeamish about the subject matter, wait no longer. Yes, it does tell the story of Aron Ralston, a 28-year-old mountaineer who had to amputate his own forearm after being trapped by a huge boulder that fell on his hand in a canyon in southern Utah. But this is not a film about a man who cuts off his arm; it is a film about a man who stops at nothing to figure out a way to release himself from a life-threatening situation.
The film opens as Aron (James Franco) prepares to go bicycling in Utah’s canyon lands. As he tosses supplies into his backpack, his hand reaches for, and just misses, the Swiss Army knife stored at the back of a cupboard. Later in the day, that loss will come back to haunt him.
Riding his mountain bike at full speed toward a canyon, he hits a bump that sends him flying over the rocks, but laughingly picks himself up and gets back on the trail. Pounding techno-music at the beginning of the film mimics the throbbing adrenaline rush he seems to crave as he barrels pell-mell through existence.
But he is not a jackass adrenaline junkie. He simply has a zest for life. He is equally thrilled by the quiet spiritual rush he receives when surveying the canyon from atop a plateau (accompanied by an appropriate switch to a gentler acoustic guitar), and by the playful serendipity of meeting a couple of girls and showing them around. Entering the slot canyon that would nearly become his tomb, he caresses the smooth stone. Clearly, he feels at home. And after plummeting down the canyon wall and discovering that his hand is pinned by a huge boulder, he issues a gigantic expletive — then sets to work.
Resourceful and self-reliant to the core, he doesn’t just wait for someone to save him. His two greatest assets are his indomitable will and his problem-solving instincts. Quickly he opens his backpack, sets its contents on a rock, and assesses them. How can they become tools for his release? Soon it becomes obvious that the film is more like Apollo 13 (1995) than like the claustrophobic Buried (2010) or Saw (2004).
One of Ralston’s most urgent needs is support — physical support. The boulder didn’t set him neatly on the canyon floor; he is suspended a few agonizing feet above the ground and has to press his feet and body against the canyon wall in order to keep from dangling by his trapped hand. After several futile attempts, he manages to use his climbing ropes to create a hammock that allows him to rest. At night, he wraps his bungee cords around his arms and neck to create a kind of blanket from the cold. In the morning he leans his face and body into the rocks to gather warmth from the sun that briefly enters the narrow canyon and then passes on its way. Even his dexterous toes are used as assets, foreshadowing his “new normal.”
Aron’s decision to give up his arm is not an example of giving up in general. Instead, it is a powerful example of his resourcefulness as a problem-solver. He has calculated how many hours he can exist without water; he has accepted the fact that no one is going to come for him; he realizes that the hand is already dead and useless to him, whether it is attached or detached. He doesn’t give up his arm so much as he lets go of the thing that is holding him back from his goal of going home.
Two stars emerge in this dynamic film. The first is James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco throws himself into this role the way Aron Ralston throws himself into the canyon: with total commitment. His alternating expressions of agony, fear, determination, joy at little victories, and even ironic humor create dramatic action in a tiny, static space. Despite the horrifying story, what one remembers most about the film is Franco’s plucky, exuberant smile.
The other star of the show is writer-director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”). He’s never on camera, of course, but he enters every scene with his creative camera angles and storytelling techniques. For example, he will focus in closely on Franco’s gritted teeth or bloodshot eyes, and then pull out to remind us of the desolate yet beautiful scene that is his living tomb. Tilted camera angles, dreamlike flashbacks, over-washed processing (to indicate Aron’s videotape of himself), and split-screen projection of multiple realities convincingly portray Aron’s mental state as the hours melt into days. The film could have been a tedious, claustrophobic trudge to the finish line, where Aron makes the gruesome decision to amputate his arm. Instead, it is a thrilling, uplifting, agonizing, and even joyous retelling of a man’s heroic determination to live.
In many ways, this film is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to get pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, “there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon.” Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for “someone” (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston’s story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the Swiss Army knife you don’t have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don’t be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.