I had to steel myself for this one. Not that I thought it would be depressing—I remember the story of Aron Ralston and his incredible survival against literally every odd ever known to man (if you didn’t ever see the news in 2003, Ralston became trapped while canyoneering in Utah and had to amputate his own arm below the elbow in order to free himself then walk to safety). It’s an amazing story of survival and pure animal will to live. No, I had to steel myself for this one because of all those stories about people passing out during That Scene. You know the one. The one with the arm.
So let’s start there. Yes, it is painful to watch. Especially the part with the nerve. The part with the nerve is really, really horrible. I admit it, I cried during that part. Not because it was so gruesome—it wasn’t—it’s just that I got to thinking about how incredibly awful that moment had to be for Ralston. I mean, this dude has had five days of the MOST INCREDIBLY AWFUL MOMENTS and here he is faced with severing his own nerves. There are three nerves in the lower arm. THREE. The movie only shows Ralston severing one, but then I thought—he did that TWICE more. And I burst into tears.
First, setting up the sequence, Ralston has the idea early in his entrapment. I kind of lost track of time in the middle of the movie—they started out really great marking the days and the hours accruing on Ralston’s super-mountain-man watch, but then they kind of drop that for the rest of the movie. Which is slightly annoying, since it represents discontinuity in an otherwise carefully plotted storyline. Anyway, the idea occurs to Ralston when he fashions a tourniquet out of some stretchy material from his water bottle and a carabiner. He even saws at his skin a little with his ludicrously dull utility knife, showing the red marks to his camera. He abandons the attempt, though, and gives it two to three more days before revisiting the concept.
But then he gets there and huge credit to James Franco for selling the moment not as a man afraid but as a man who is not going to motherfucking die in this motherfucking canyon. You can literally see those words flashing through his brain. Ralston sees a vision of his unborn son and his face kind of closes and then he breaks his arm—twice—and goes for it. And yeah, I never want to see it again, ever, but it wasn’t nearly as awful as the news reports of people fainting made it seem. It’s over in four to five minutes and while there’s blood, it’s not like it’s spraying around like this is a Saw movie. Mostly it’s just terrible to think that it really took Ralston forty minutes to do this.
127 Hours is a grueling movie to sit through. “Person stuck in space alone and dying” is always tough to watch. Open Water, Frozen, Castaway, Buried—they’re all difficult to sit through and most of them are ultimately snuff films. What makes 127 Hours even remotely tolerable is that we know going in Ralston survives. We can go on this journey because we know in the end, it does work out. It’s a comfort while you watch Ralston completely break down over the course of the five days. And the movie offers a traditional narrative arc that ends with proper resolution. Even if Ralston had died, it would still be better than Buried simply because 127 Hours has a beginning, middle, AND an end, like a proper story. Buried stops with beginning.
Overall, 127 Hours is a really good film. It’s already a strong Oscar contender and I do think it will carry late into awards season next year. I do not, however, think it should be winning all the awards. The direction from Danny Boyle is solid, but Boyle does make some questionable decisions. Maybe he thought he needed to enliven the story with gimmicks, but he really, really didn’t. All he did was clutter up an already dense story. The split-screening, for instance, bugged me. It wasn’t absolutely necessary and at the end of the film, it actually ruined a fine moment from Franco in a two second scene of Ralston being confronted with the media after his rescue. Likewise, the score was overbearing and intrusive at times and actively took away from the incredibly subtle work Franco was doing.
Where the movie succeeds, however, it succeeds so well it’s amazing. The script, adapted from Ralston’s memoir, is terrific. Boyle, along with collaborator Simon Beaufoy (Oscar winning writer of Slumdog Millionaire) strike a perfect balance between Ralston’s real struggle in the canyon and his internal struggle to reconcile himself with his fate. While the split-screening failed, the “hallucination” of a couch in the canyon with Ralston on which various friends and family sit works beautifully. The flashbacks integrate neatly, too, with scenes from Ralston’s childhood and that crucial moment when he failed to tell a coworker where he was headed. And the cinematography is beautiful, with lots of gorgeous shots of the canyon lands in Utah, and an especially lovely repeating shot of a raven flying overhead.
And then there is James Franco. No one doubts that Franco is a good actor, even though he has made some real stinkers (Fly Boys, anyone?). But did anyone really know he was this good? He carries this movie start to finish—even in scenes with other people, such as the opening with Kata Mara (Happythankyoumoreplease, We Are Marshall) and Amber Tamblyn (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, TV’s Joan of Arcadia). Mara and Tamblyn are both able actresses and for their short time on screen they acquit themselves well, but Franco stomps all over them. He also trounces Clemence Poesy (In Bruges, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) in their brief scenes recalling a past love of Ralston’s. His energy, his enthusiasm, his ability to say everything and nothing—such as his unblinking expression as “Rana” (Poesy) dumps him at a basketball game—makes mincemeat out of whatever anyone else is doing in the moments they share the screen with him.
Franco’s performance is defined by a series of small moments, not big loud happenings. The expression of utter disbelief mixed with sheer horror as he realizes he is trapped turns instantly into blind animal panic. His fierce admonishments not to “lose it” contrast with his complete sobbing breakdown as the inevitability of death sinks in. And that wordless conversation he has with himself about what exactly he can and will do to get out of his predicament—that first flicker of resolve when he demonstrates his new tourniquet, the curious expression when he jabs the knife into his arm and encounters the bone, and then that final determination, the ferocity in his eyes as he breaks his arm for the second time, severing the bone so he won’t have to cut it. Never once are you aware of acting, it never feels like tradecraft. It is so organic and real that you gag along with him after he severs the nerve, you chant, “Don’t pass out,” as he does and when he is finally free, that incredulous rush of joy moves through you, too.
127 Hours is easily one of the best movies of the year but James Franco’s performance is one of a lifetime.