Director Danny Boyle has recently given us fairly large-canvas stories in his movies – the slums of Mumbai in India in Slumdog Millionaire, the reaches of outer space in Sunshine and a deserted London in 28 Days Later. So it’s highly unusual that for his latest film, he decided to set the whole thing in a canyon with a guy who had his arm pinned for the title 127 hours and thus couldn’t move. How do you get a 90 minute movie out of that? Also, this is such a classic Americana tale – man against the mountain, the solitary hero believing in himself and rising above his obstacles. You can almost hear the trumpet solo in the soundtrack just thinking about it.
But surprisingly, Boyle brilliantly avoids all the potential pitfalls in bringing the true story of Aron Ralston, the intrepid canyoneer who found himself stuck and had to go to the extreme measure of amputating his arm to escape alive.
Given that the vast majority of the audience knows the story before they even enter the cinema, Boyle has opted for an approach of allowing us to experience, as closely as we can, what the experience might have been like for Ralston. In the brilliant opening prologue (it’s about 15-20 minutes before Ralston gets stuck and the title of the film appears), actor James Franco as Ralston takes us into the energetic world of canyoneering, riding his mountain bike across the open landscape, meeting girls, going swimming (the swimming hole sequence – while visually spectacular – is the one fictional component to the whole thing), and generally having an adventurous time. All of this serves to put us, as well as cinema can, into the emotional world of Ralston. We felt (at least I did), just how much fun it is out there in the canyons.
This same visceral sense of being in the moment then flowed into the narrow crack where Ralston gets trapped. Once he’s stuck there, over the course of the rest of the film, Boyle takes us logically through all the steps that led to Ralston’s final escape. First of all, his logical (and often ingenious) ways of surviving in the canyon, then, as the hours turn into days – the state of his mind. We see his random thoughts, daydreams and visions as his situation starts to severely affect his mind.
What I found most interesting is that the film had set Ralston up fairly quickly as a man who really moves in a completely different direction from the rest of society (also illustrated visually with some fairly neat split screen shots at the beginning). However, when he’s stuck in the gorge, it’s his parents, friends and ex-girlfriend that appear to him. This really spoke to me – that idea that no matter how much we may enjoy blazing our own trail and doing our own thing – in the end, we all need other people.
So, in that respect, this film became the exact opposite of the lone man overcoming his obstacles story. It’s that anti-sentimental approach by Boyle (a British filmmaker) that allows it to avoid clichés and actually become a truly great film experience.
Final note: as for “that” scene – it is fairly graphic, and if you’re not used to watching that kind of thing, you may have a hard time sitting through it. I was certainly thinking that if it went for much longer that I might stop looking at the screen. (The excellent sound-design doesn’t help either…) But then, I think you’ll already know by now whether you think you can watch this or not. But don’t let this put you off it. I think it’s a film well worth watching.
4 ½ out of 5