"This is insane."
The same thought crossed my mind as 127 Hours' hero uttered it, when he first finds his arm wedged between a boulder and stone wall, deep inside the narrow crevice of a slot canyon.
If you remember back to 2003, one of the more horrifying stories of the year was that of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who, during a climbing trip to Blue John Canyon near Moab, Utah, toppled down a slot canyon along with a boulder that pinned his right forearm stubbornly to the canyon wall. He hadn't told anyone where he was going. After five days, during which his attempts to move the boulder proved to be physically impossible, Ralston amputated his own arm with the only tools he had -- a dull pocket knife (the kind you'd get for free with a $15 flashlight, as he put it) and pliers.
It's not exactly something you'd like to form a mental image of, much less spend any time analyzing the finer points of. That is, unless you're Danny Boyle, and you spend 93 minutes doing just that, taking a gruesome experience that would otherwise be hard to relate to, and torture to sit through, and turn it into a visionary, existential account of the human will to endure. This doesn't make it any less gruesome to watch, but it does make the difference between wanting to sit through it and not.
127 Hours was the closing-night film at the Philadelphia Film Festival last Sunday, winding down its festival run before it makes its U.S. premiere on Nov. 5. The film has Boyle written all over it within the first few seconds, which make a full-on assault on your senses with a frenetic, split-screen introduction -- a flood of colors, bustling city scenes, and A.R. Rahman's infectious score all vie for your attention.
Ralston (James Franco) is introduced as the center of the hustle, gathering up his climbing gear and pawing around absentmindedly for his Swiss Army Knife -- which the audience sees in tight focus in the foreground -- before giving it up for lost. It's alternating wide and tight shots like this that give the film a slightly horror-movie edge, reminding you of the claustrophobic hellhole that awaits him.
On the road, he dangles his head out the car window, videotaping himself as he rides -- "Canyon, music and the night. Love it!" The first few minutes of the film succinctly sum up all you need to know about Ralston -- always on the go, carefree, reckless.
Once in the canyon, Ralston crosses paths with two lost girls, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn). He offers to be their guide, proffering, "I know a better way" than the guide book, with a devilish smile. They share a brief adventure before parting ways and inviting him to a party later that night-- "Just look for the inflatable Scooby Doo," they giggle.
The girls make their exit, Ralston is on his own again, and the audience's last safety net is gone as the film's breakneck speed comes toppling down with one boulder.
And then... quiet. Deafening quiet.
The dramatic irony couldn't be thicker as panic sets in immediately for the audience, while Ralston is only beginning his feeble attempts to move the rock, alternating between determination ("move this f**king rock") and desperation ("please... please"). Having this knowledge is where 127 Hours could easily fall into a trap. Why would I want to watch someone attempt to get free when I already know he's just torturing himself?
Boyle doesn't concern himself with those details. It's less about Ralston's tortuous ordeal and more an introspective, truthful encounter of himself, and what led him to where he is in the first place. "This rock has been waiting for me my entire life," Ralston realizes. This is where Boyle succeeds in creating a relatable experience, forming a stream-of-consciousness narrative in which Ralston reflects, as we all do from time to time, on his life.
As he prepares himself for the likelihood of death, Ralston videotapes himself for his parents, with many details of his thoughts taken straight from Ralston's own account, in his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Memories from childhood and sweet moments with a former love keep him from losing it as he waves in and out of deliriousness. While some of these moments border on cheesy, they are on the whole realistic and encourage an uncommonly intimate bond between audience and character. Even the acid-trippy hallucinations are plausible -- Blue John, of Blue John Canyon (apparently an old sheriff fellow of some sort) materializes, and Scooby Doo makes an appearance.
Franco is mesmerizing as he steers his character from one who acts with reckless disregard to an introspective, remorseful soul, all the while maintaining his playful spark. To accomplish this range in a role that mostly consists of him speaking aloud to himself is incredible, especially when you make it look as effortless as Franco does. The Oscar-buzz is undoubtedly there for him, but mostly, his performance confirms what we all suspected -- the guy is good and can easily carry a film.
127 Hours is a raw experience, and it brings you closer to Ralston's ordeal than anyone expected was possible, both emotionally and physically. Boyle is masterful at intensifying every sense, from Ralston sweeping his hand against the smoothness of rock and stretching his leg to drink in the warmth of the sun to, well, digging into his bone and nerves with a dull knife. Every move is one shared generously with the viewer. Some, like the final arm-cutting scene, might leave you shaky, as they did me (or passed out, as reportedly happened to a handful of viewers at the Toronto Film Festival). But if this film bears any resemblance to a horror film, it parts ways from the genre on one crucial point -- by the end, you want nothing more than for the worst to happen.