Danny Boyle’s new film, which chronicles a solitary rock climber’s struggle to free his trapped arm, certainly justified several aspects of my low expectations, yet, by the time the film stopped rolling, had managed to elevate itself to a memorable and unique status.
Let’s begin with the off-putting: 127 Hours’ first ten minutes are an adrenaline-fueled opus to macho, wilderness-lovin’, fast-bike-ridin’, manic loners. Perhaps it’s the cynic or the nature-hater in me, but back-lit shots of men standing on top of hills and surveying the countryside while tender chords plink and plonk makes me want to be ill.
Thank goodness they don’t waste much time before Ralston’s joyride is cut short by a tumble down a crevasse–any more sprinting across red dirt landscapes and they might as well have tapped the Looney Tunes Roadrunner to play him. Once Ralston lands on a dark, claustrophobic strip of ground and finds his arm definitively jammed beneath a large boulder, his demeanor softens and becomes quite a bit less Howdy Doody.
My main concern was that 127 Hours would drag. As 80% of the film takes place in the crevasse, featuring no one but Ralston, some pesky ants, and his hallucinations, there are moments when the audience may feel agitated and even constrained by the lack of dialogue and movement. Boyle manages to exploit these moments for their visceral loneliness, only slipping into overly-reflective, boring mode once in a while.
Thematically, the issue of solitude reigns supreme. The opening credits feature video triptychs of crowds, including soccer fans in a stadium and Muslim men lined up for the call to prayer. Slowly, images of a lone Ralston embarking on his trip into the wilderness begin finding their way into the trios, clearly contrasting and elucidating his love for independence.
The credits and their message initially feel heavy-handed, but the film brings depth to these simplistic comparisons (lone mountain climber vs. connected crowd) by relentlessly examining how and why Ralston’s view of the relationship between independence and friendship has so long been an inverse one. 127 Hours both challenges and supports the typical wisdom that we all need others to survive and thrive.
127 Hours is at its best when probing the blow-back of Ralston’s careless attitude towards his relationship with his parents and little sister, not to mention his devil-may-care outlook regarding his own safety. How the two are connected comes into focus during a scene when Ralston is getting ready to exit his apartment and begin his trip, and decides to ignore his mother as she leaves a plaintive message on his answering machine. Had he taken a few minutes to pick up the phone and tell her where he was going, he might have been rescued.
Regret for not overtly caring for one’s relatives more is a very universal and relatable experience, but that makes it all the more grueling to watch Ralston dwell on old, happy memories and record last messages to his parents on his camcorder, detailing how he’s slipping closer and closer to death.
But 127 Hours isn’t all doom and gloom. To Franco’s credit, he’s compelling when he’s screaming for help at the top of his lungs, and even more so when he’s filming a keyed-up morning talk show starring himself as host, guest, and smart-ass caller. Other light touches include his imagination convincing him that an inflatable plastic Scooby Doo is lurking in a dark corner of the crevasse, as well as montages of fizzy drinks pouring as he grows increasingly thirsty.
In regards to the now-infamous arm-cutting scene: it was gory but it was truly not as bad as I thought it would be. I kept my eyes squinted and ready to snap shut at all times, but the scene was filmed through a panicky series of shifting, seconds-long shots, so the camera never dwelled on any one particularly upsetting moment for long. The scene wasn’t dragged out, nor was it the culminative moment of the film, which is nice because Boyle finds a more thematically-suitable way to wrap things up.
While 127 Hours isn’t typically the type of movie I see in theaters, I found it quickly roped me in and, once the pacing hit its stride, didn’t allow any opportunities to disconnect. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Franco garners an Oscar nod for this; he rightly deserves it. But not as much as Danny Boyle deserves recognition for turning a simple story inside-out and exposing the sinuous connections individuals weave between themselves and the rest of society.