In May 2003, Aron Ralston became trapped in Blue John Canyon in Utah's Canyonlands N.P. after a boulder dislodged and pinned his arm. Five days later, knowing that no one was looking for him (and no one would know where to look anyway since he'd told no one of his plans), out of water and reduced to drinking his own urine, Ralston took the incredible step of amputating his right arm to escape the canyon. He documented his story in the 2004 book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and now Danny Boyle (best known for the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire) has turned Ralston's story into a surprisingly good movie called 127 Hours (for the amount of time Ralston was trapped).
I initially had no interest in seeing this movie. I didn't read the book, either. Partly this was because I'm quite ambivalent about Ralston's story. Yes, he did an amazing and courageous thing. I can't foresee any circumstances, even as desperate as his, in which I could do what he did: if it were me in that canyon, my bones would still be hanging there. But he also violated an important principle of wilderness travel — always tell someone where you're going — and suffered as a result.
Even beyond this, I had trouble seeing how Ralston's story would make a compelling movie. I mean what can you do with a story in which the protagonist is stuck at the bottom of a narrow slot canyon unable to move? I envisioned a lot of cheesy Hollywood flashbacks and dream sequences, endless hashing over of exaggerated regrets, etc. The reviews seemed quite good, however, so I decided to check it out — and I'm very glad I did. 127 Hours is a compelling, economical and surprisingly visual arresting film, driven by an exceptional performance by James Franco as Ralston.
After 15 minutes or so of set-up, Ralston becomes stuck in the canyon, and his efforts to escape and survive occupy most of the remaining 75 minutes. Given that there are very long periods with no dialogue at all (particularly at the beginning of the canyon sequence), Boyle has done a superb job of making the "action" (as it were) compelling as we watch Ralston take stock of his situation, review the supplies he has at hand, and attempt to escape. He's helped in telling this story by something that you might assume is a Hollywood device: Ralston records his thoughts on a video camera. This actually happened (although the videotape has never been released publicly) so it does allow for dialogue, as well as Ralston's personality to emerge.
There are flashbacks and dream sequences, but they take less time than I expected, and are mostly loaded toward the back-end of the film. They're also done in a fresh way, with some interesting use of split screens at various points.
The real revelation here is Franco. I don't think I've seen him in anything before, although I've heard something about him being a highly cerebral actor. If that's true, I can see the results here. Franco conveys depths of emotion and thought in Ralston's character just with his eyes and the set of his mouth.
And of course there's the amputation itself. Boyle doesn't shirk from it, and the special effects folks did an amazing job. As a result, this scene is not for the squeamish. I cringed and closed my eyes more than once. It is not gratuitous, however, and is really necessary to convey the difficulty of what he did, not just from a pain perspective but from that of how he technically did it, armed as he was only with a dull multi-tool that he had dulled further by using it to chip away uselessly at the rock that trapped him.
4 Stars (out of 5)