Awards season heats up as the first of Fox Searchlight’s two heavy contenders, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, hits town this week. (The second, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, opens on Dec. 22 locally.) The short take: Everything you’ve probably heard about the intensity of Boyle’s film is true, and the film is at least so near being as good as has been claimed that it makes little difference. If it seems at all ever so slightly disappointing, that’s probably because nothing Boyle could do at this point is going to quite live up to Slumdog Millionaire. In every sense, however, 127 Hours is masterful—even brilliant—filmmaking.
Boyle’s film is drawn from Aron Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which recounts Ralston’s experience of getting his forearm trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall during a solo hiking trip he undertook without alerting anyone to where he was going. The end result, as most of us know, was that Ralston ultimately cut his own arm off rather than die in that crevice. It is this story that Boyle and his co-writer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) have turned into a film, and somewhat surprisingly—since we know where the story is going—it makes for compelling and even suspenseful entertainment.
The film works on the assumption that we know what is going to take place during those titular hours and carefully sets up just how—and to some degree why—things go wrong the way they do. We see Aron (James Franco) get ready for his wilderness hike. We see him in preparation for the trip. We see him just miss—and not take the time to really look for—his Swiss Army Knife. We see him let his answering machine catch a phone call from his sister—and we see him ignore her request to call his mother and let her know where he’s going “because she worries, but you know that.” Through it all, Aron proceeds in his self-contained, self-absorbed manner—something that’s stressed on the drive to his starting point as he revels in his solitariness. All of this works as well as it does, in part, because we know where it’s going.
The same is true of his encounter with two girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he meets on his hike. He spends a little time with them, shows them a hidden lake, makes very vague plans to meet up with them at a later party and then goes on his way. “I don’t think we figured into his day at all,” one of them remarks after he leaves. And, of course, they didn’t—no one did. But what Aron also hasn’t figured into his day is the accident that’s waiting just ahead of him.
Once the film reaches the accident with the boulder, it’s easy to assume that things are going to become both claustrophobic and limited—and it’s hard not to wonder if all the hyped action of the opening, with its split-screen multiple images, was to make up for this. The truth is something very different, because if anything, the film becomes freer and more fluid once its hero finds himself trapped. After establishing the narrow (literally) world that he now inhabits and the limitations it imposes, Boyle enlivens the proceedings with memories—most of which reflect some aspect of realization that his current predicament is an unnecessary event stemming from Aron’s self-containment. As time passes, the memories alter into hallucinatory fantasies that occasionally feel a bit like something out of a David Lynch film—or at least they carry something that smacks of that Lynchian sense of genuine madness.
All of this, of course, is leading up to the film’s—the story’s—key sequence where Aron cuts off his arm with nothing but one of those dull, tiny blades on a cheap multipurpose tool. It’s harrowing. It’s gruesome. It’s intense. And I have no trouble at all believing that the stories of some viewers passing out while watching the scene are not just studio hype. What is surprising, if you really watch the scene, is how little is actually shown—despite a good deal of blood—and how much is conveyed through sound, suggestion and editing. Realizing this, however, does nothing to make the sequence any easier. I’ve watched it twice and it’s no easier to keep from looking away the second time. I don’t think it ever will be.
But the sequence itself isn’t the point of the film, which is, at bottom, a journey of self-discovery about the nature of isolation—whether deliberate or accidental. The film’s actual key scene occurs a few minutes later when Aron stumbles on some hikers. Even at this point, he has to force himself to admit something he has spent his entire life avoiding. It is the most moving moment in the entire film—and the complete justification for everything that has come before. You must see this movie. This is filmmaking. Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images.