Friday, February 25, 2011
127 Hours: The Measure of a Life
Roger Ebert, in his four star review of 127 Hours, called the film “an exercise in conquering the unfilmable.” Of all ten Best Picture nominees, 127 Hours feels like the least likely when described—a canyoneer stumbles into a crevice and as he falls, a boulder pins his right forearm to the canyon wall. The film is quite literally a story of a man caught between a rock and a hard place. The thrust of the narrative unfolds of the title time period, where the hiker finds himself at the center of the ultimate dilemma: amputation, or death? The film has basically one actor in one location. The amputation is shown in gruesome detail, leading some audience members to faint. (I’m sure the producers of the film are thankful for the publicity surrounding that particular urban legend.) By that description, 127 Hours sounds like an exercise in experimental filmmaking. Just who is going to see this film?
Thankfully, the material is handled by a gifted and visionary filmmaker at the very top of his game. Director Danny Boyle, who after his big Oscar victory with Slumdog Millionaire two years ago, has proven himself to be a great humanist movie maker. Where other directors might have seen this story better served as a documentary, or a demented snuff film (believe me, with the level of nastiness seen in many horror films in recent years, there is certainly a very real and perverse audience for gore—the bloodier, the better), Boyle had the insight to see the potential for a tale of willpower, courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. 127 Hours is not the kind of film when you read the plot described, you expect immense emotional uplift. Yet at the end of 94 minutes, I was in tears; the film affected me more profoundly than any I had seen in a very long time.
In my last blog posting, I reviewed The King’s Speech, which is currently winning over the hearts of filmgoers and Oscar voters everywhere. That film is also a story about the triumph of the human spirit, but it is also very traditional and quite emotionally manipulative. As a former stutterer myself, I felt compassion toward King George VI, but at the same time, I felt that the biggest obstacle George VI had in the way of overcoming his stutter was his own hubris. I know that the character has a tremendously different history and set of class values than I do, but when the filmmakers are asking the regular folks in the audience to show sympathy toward a very privileged man I’m not that sympathetic when George VI knows how to best solve his problem but remains too stubborn to do so. I had to drag my ass to speech therapy as a kid. It was a source of embarrassment for me too; why does this rich asshole wait until his coronation to finally get serious about fixing his own problem?
Interestingly enough, hubris also plays a big role in the story of Aron Ralston, the subject of 127 Hours. Boyle is practically begging us not to like the guy, and lead actor James Franco plays Ralson as very cocksure and overconfident. The character is belongs to the subgenre of nature loving dudes that I like to call The Dumbass in the Woods (though in this film, Aron Ralson is The Dumbass in the Canyon; for a classic example of A Dumbass in the Woods look no further than Christopher McCandless, the subject of the non-fiction book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer and the film directed by Sean Penn—both are great). The Dumbass in the Woods is that guy who thinks he is the master of nature. He’s the trail guide that knows the shortcut that will shave an hour off a hike and take you by some killer views, man. He’s the kind of guy who will eat berries off the bush and drink water from a stream without first iodizing it. The Dumbass in the Woods is the guy who when on vacation in Hawaii, has to walk over the lava field to find the most secluded beach. The Dumbass in the Woods is so confident in his own abilities that he doesn’t think to check his gear before he leaves, tell anyone where he is going, or file a plan with the Park Ranger. In short, The Dumbass in the Woods is the kind of guy who is destined to have a bad date with karma.
In the first 20 minutes of 127 Hours, Boyle gives us plenty of evidence that Aron Ralston is a Dumbass in the Woods. One of the first shots in the film has Ralston overlooking his Swiss Army Knife. Another has him tell his boss that he is going camping by himself. When setting out on his fateful hike, Ralston decides to cut 45 minutes off of his time by biking a portion of the trail. He meets a couple of cute female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and takes them off trail to a freshwater lake only accessible by plummeting down in-between two canyon walls (OK—I’ll admit that was pretty cool). When the girls inquire as to Aron’s plans, he is aloof, but they invite him to a party anyway. One of the girls, after Aron departs, says, quite astutely, “We didn’t even factor into his day.” Those girls are very much like the audience watching the film; we are a Greek chorus, shaking our head at Ralston’s arrogance and lack of planning. We have the benefit of knowing Ralston’s eventual fate; when I saw him glance over his Swiss Army Knife, I said to myself, “Man, he is going to wish he had that when his ass gets stuck in the canyon.” It is good that Boyle has us laughing at this Dumbass in the Woods; the humor has a disarming effect on the viewer, and makes us a little unprepared at how quickly Ralston finds himself imperiled.
Boyle and Franco—probably more than any director-actor combination I can recall—are very adept at dragging the audience alongside Ralston’s dilemma. Almost as soon as Ralston falls, he realizes that there is absolutely no chance that anyone will come to his rescue. In many ways, we too have our forearm trapped at the bottom of the canyon. Aside from the fact that his arm is stuck, Franco turns Ralston into a man of action. His inner Boy Scout is brought forward when Ralston takes stock of his limited useful supplies—a half a bottle of water, a head lamp, rope, carabiners, a burrito, his tent, and a cheap, Chinese made all-in-one tool. Most important is Ralston’s willpower. Each of his possessions becomes dear to him, as he will eventually need all of them to survive. The all-in-one tool is comically useless; the blades are too dull to slice his fingertips, and Ralston initially uses the tool to vainly try and chip away at the boulder which has pulverized his forearm. Acknowledging the inferior quality of the tool, Ralston sarcastically thanks his mother for thoughtfully giving it to him as a stocking stuffer. It’s no more than a toy, really, but the tool will ultimately be Ralston’s salvation. Given the extreme peril of his situation and the limited supplies Ralston has at his disposal, and armed with the foreknowledge that he does escape, the character quickly turns from being The Dumbass in the Woods to a makeshift MacGyver. Franco makes it easy to believe that Ralston has both opposing aspects within his character.
Boyle reaches deep within his bag of directorial tricks to illuminate Ralston’s mental struggles. Another took crucial tool Ralston’s survival is the video recorder he has brought with him (another classic Dumbass in the Woods move—you forget your knife and to file a plan but remember your camera). It serves to purpose to nourish him or can be used to break free of the boulder, but the camera provides immeasurable comfort as a mental release. Ralston creates a video diary chronicling his time trapped in Blue John Canyon, and in these segments, Franco’s performance really comes alive. They start off as simply observational, but as time passes, Ralston gets a little crazier. My favorite moment is a scene where Ralston is interviewing himself as if he were on the Oprah Winfrey Show; Franco, a talented comic actor, nails the humor in the ridiculousness of the situation though. Eventually, he becomes more delusional and grim, and that is where Boyle really shines. First off, the video diary segments are filled with true sense of intimacy, but as Ralston begins hallucinating and remembering his past, Boyle uses split screen to marvelous effect. The technique is used to devastating effect in a scene where Ralston remembers the moment he broke up with his girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) while they attended a Utah Jazz game. Boyle uses true directorial flair to illuminate the mental anguish of a man trapped by a boulder, with only his own memories to keep him company.
127 Hours is a film that really brings to life this adage: your life is flashing before your eyes. Gradually, Ralston begins to accept that there may be no way out, and he tries to make peace with the life that he may miss. I like how his regrets range from the mundane to the deeply personal. He will never attend the party the cute hikers invite him to. The girls tell him to look for a giant, inflatable Scooby-Doo, and Ralston realizes he will never see that show again. He has immense regret toward the girl he loved and how it was his fault the relationship ended. In turn, Ralston makes peace with his father, mother and sister, whose wedding he will never attend. Ralston has a vision of the son he will never have. Because the audience is trapped alongside the character, Ralston’s remembrances cause us to ask the same sorts of questions.
If we were stuck in a situation where death seemed like the only release what things would we be thinking about before we died? What silly TV shows would we miss? What parties would we never attend? Would we feel at peace with how we said goodbye to our loved ones? What would our biggest regret be? Would we feel that our parents would be proud of us? What parts of life would we never get to experience? What would the measure of our lives be? 127 Hours is a film that engages its viewers in these sorts of questions. Watching the film, one will inevitably imagine themselves in Ralston’s place, asking themselves the same sorts of questions. Few films dare ask their audiences to engage so personally with their own lives. The cumulative effect of all this soul searching is that I felt I knew Aron Ralston like I know myself. I may still think Ralston was a Dumbass in the Woods, but trapped alongside the character at the bottom of that chasm caused me to invest in his humanity.
As the film rises to its climax, and Ralston chooses amputation over death, I felt as if I was watching a man become reborn. Like birth, the amputation scene is bloody and painful, and you get a true sense of the awesome amount of willpower it must have took for Ralston to first break his own forearm bones, then to sever his arm using a hopelessly inefficient tool. (The scene is intensely gruesome, and I admit to watching most of it with fingers over my eyes. Still, more people in the audience in the theater I saw the film in were more grossed out by the scene where Ralston must drink his own urine.) Boyle lingers on a shot of a single nerve as the final piece of viscera connecting Ralston’s forearm to the rest of his body, and the nerve serves as a metaphor for the choice Ralston must make. Stay connected, and assure yourself of death. Break free and guarantee life. When that final link is cut, an enormous feeling of catharsis swept over me, as if Ralston’s struggle became my own, and I looked death in the eye and said, “Not today, not in this moment. In this moment, I choose life.”
Boyle ends the film with a coda featuring footage of the real life Aron Ralston. We are told that despite his accident he continued to be an outdoorsman, and he kept his passions of climbing and mountaineering alive, but this time, Ralston always tells someone where he is going. What made me a massive blubbering mess was when footage of Ralston holding his real life son was shown, and the text on the screen read that the vision of his son Ralston had while trapped in the canyon came true, that it was this vision that willed him to choose life. Before my own child was born, I would have thought this would be a corny, perhaps overly sentimental ending. Now that I too am a father, I know that if faced with the choice between amputation or death, I would choose life. Life without my daughter would be unimaginable, and at the core of his soul Aron Ralston did not want to imagine his own life without children and willed himself to make that a possibility. To see his sacrifice rewarded was the ultimate happy ending.
127 Hours is a film about man, in the face of impossible circumstances, choosing life. Aron Ralston’s story is a marvelous testament to the human spirit, and Danny Boyle’s film proves to be truly uplifting.
127 Hours (2010)
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco
Studio: Fox Searchlight (20th Century Fox)
Total Oscar Nominations: 6 (Best Picture—Danny Boyle and Christian Coulson; Best Actor—James Franco; Best Adapted Screenplay—Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy; Best Editing—Jon Harris; Best Original Song—“If I Rise”, by A.R. Rahman, Dido, and Rollo Armstrong; Best Score—A.R. Rahman)
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