127 Hours | movie review from the New Orleans Film Festival

Danny Boyle’s latest movie is based on a true story (chronicled in the memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston), and it would be a disservice to the story and the film for me not to be open about all of it.  So if you are looking to watch this movie as a “What happens?” narrative, this is not the review for you.

Aron’s story is fairly simple:  he was rock climbing and got pinned when a boulder fell on his hand.  He was trapped in a narrow canyon for five days before cutting off his own arm to escape with his life.

Sound intense?  It is.  That was the first word I could utter after walking out of the movie.  I had pretty high expectations for this scenario and this director, and Danny Boyle exceeded them.  The movie is tense, tragic, visceral…intense.

James Franco played Aron; after watching this performance, I will always take him seriously.  There is a definite emotional and mental progression throughout those 127 hours in the canyon, and Franco delineated them subtly enough to seem real but clearly enough to make his mood and perspective changes obvious.  He goes from shocked and angry but hopeful to resigned to slap-happy to regretful and delirious to this desperate, almost animalistic survivalist mode, and Franco sold every single moment, every emotion.

And against the frame of Franco’s character, Boyle created a backdrop and a narrative that never got boring to watch and never let up the incipient sense of threat.  Each time you get almost comfortable down there in the canyon with Aron, he adds a new danger:  loss of tools, ants, dehydration, delirium….Boyle also prevents any ennui with the setting by following the drifts of Aron’s mind.  We rewind the events that led him to that place, trapped alone in a remote and shadowed crevice with no hope of rescue, and we look back into his memories as he examines the moments and experiences that foreshadowed this fate.  We watch him fantasize about escaping, and we witness at last his hallucinations as he makes his goodbyes to parents, old lovers, little sister.  All of this intercuts the time he spends in the prosaic tasks of rationing his water, trying to chip away enough of the boulder to shift it, creating a pulley system that doesn’t work with his stretchy climbing rope and fading strength, and talking himself out of panic or despair.

Boyle used a lot of split screens that showed either different scenes or alternate views on the same scene, especially in the high-energy opening, but this continues even when Aron is tethered in place by showing his recording screen on the camcorder as we watch him make a “confessional” or see him watching what he recorded before his fall.

Sound was an integral part of setting the scene, enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if this film garners (among more obvious nominations like directing, acting, picture) award nominations for sound editing.  There are a couple times when the camera pans up out of the canyon and above the park to show how huge the vista is, and how still, and the film is utterly silent.  The sounds of life—the clicking scuttle of ants, the cawing of a raven overhead—become hyper-loud in the emptiness.  And there is one moment following Aron’s desperate decision to escape or die trying when a jarring, discordant (even grating; discordant seems almost too mild) jangle screeches as he probes at a tendon.  It clawed at my spine in as close an approximation of actual physical shock as can be triggered by suggestion.

Speaking of that scene:  it is graphic.  It is hard to watch.  And yet after the build-up, it somehow also seems entirely logical.  Aron has reached a point of desperation where he is literally staring at his own death.  He also crosses into that strange mindset you get into when you stop looking at your body like your body and see it just as an object, a set of spatial relations and shapes that you have to manipulate a certain way, when the pain only makes you more determined to do it (most of us know this from small-scale things like digging at ingrown toenails, but it was immediately relatable).  It’s still hard to watch.  And it’s not the only graphic scene in this movie that is hard to watch.  Remember the toilet-diving scene in Trainspotting?  Here Boyle outgrosses himself with the help of a camel-back.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but you’ll know it when you see it.  I dry-heaved.  It was that effectively filmed.

What I came out of this movie convinced of is that Boyle makes movies about the triumph of the human spirit.  There are only so many ways someone can get out of this situation, and probably the most outlandish is the one that actually happened.  Sort of.  I mean, the odds of hikers stumbling across him or a rescue team finding him were astronomically against—indeed, if he had not done this he likely would never have been found—but those seem somehow more likely than self-dismemberment, you know?  But yet Aron did it; he got out against all odds, and he lived to tell the tale.  The framing of opening and closing the movie with montages of human activity and motion and unity gave a very hopeful view of our species, an unspoken testament of what humans can accomplish, what we can survive, and what beauty there is in the strength of human resilience.  Personally, I think it’s wonderful to have someone who can tell powerful stories that cut to the heart of what it means to be human, and do it in a hopeful, ultimately uplifting way instead of the relentless negativity prevalent in too much art.

127 Hours is a film you need to see for yourself, if you think you can handle it.  It is tight and brutal in its realism, and unless you’re a fan of hard-core torture films (and maybe even if you are) there are moments that will make you flinch in your seat.  In the end it is an achingly beautiful story about what strength lies buried in the human psyche, and a beautiful rendering of a sum of choices that will stick with you long after you walk from the theater.  Theatrical release is slated for November 5th.