Reviewed by James Owen
Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” is fast becoming known as “the movie where the guy cuts his arm off,” suggesting the only reason to see the film is to watch a guy cut his arm off. While this inevitability lurks in the audience’s mind, it certainly should not turn anyone off from this kinetically engrossing and oddly inspirational film. Boyle has taken a traditional man-vs-nature flick and made it into something more: an examination of the “latch-key” generation keen on its selfishness as well as its resourcefulness.
Aron Ralston (James Franco) goes off for a bike ride near Moab, Utah. As usual, he tells no one where he’s heading or when he will be back. As he embarks, Boyle foreshadows some small yet telling moments: he fills up the water bottle as far as possible but does not spend too much time looking for that Swiss Army knife. Boyle inter-cuts Ralston’s prep with images of a speeding freeway and a dripping sink, cyclical patterns that keep repeating themselves over and over again with no obvious patterns. Just like Ralston’s life, we assume.
We land in the desert, replete with a popping soundtrack and Boyle’s signature quick editing and multi-layered cinematography. If I were not used to it from his other work, I might suspect Boyle were mocking the “extreme” outdoor sports movement. Rather, Boyle tries to convey Ralston’s irrationality (which does overlap with Mountain Dew mockery). Despite meeting cute fellow hikers Kristi and Megan (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), Ralston keeps moving until he inevitably gets to the crevasse and the bolder that seals his fate.
He slips. The rock slips. They both merge at the bottom with the boulder catching Ralston’s lower arm against the wall. What happens for the next five days (or so) is documented by Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy down to the most minute details. Everything a person (specifically a male) would need to do in such a situation is captured. Everything one might think about during an ordeal like this (the taste of a cold beverage, lost moments from childhood, that party with the two girls he never got to attend) are visualized. Whatever mode of escape you could hypothesize, he tries.
This, of course, includes the final and successful mode of escape that has already made “127 Hours” infamous. No doubt a brutal climax, punctuated by Boyle’s lingering camera. Will you faint, as reported? I don’t know; I have a pretty strong stomach and found myself turning away. More compelling is what transpires in reaching this point. Ralston has a camera he uses to document what he thinks will be his last moments. While he spends a lot of time describing what is happening to him and describing how he’s trying to get out, he also spends time reflecting on what has brought him to this moment.
He reflects on a life where he’s insulated himself from others to be “independent,” couching his current situation as an inevitability. He’s literally at this place because he’s always moving away from relationships, becoming so isolated he does not even tell anyone where he’s going. In a moment that will surely put Franco in the pole position for Best Actor, he describes the formation of this boulder and how “it’s been waiting here for me and waiting to take me out.”
For as inspiring as Ralston’s story can be, he is at his core a very selfish and emotional insecure twenty-something. I mean, think about that self-centered sentiment in thinking about his fate: This is the moment that captures the emotionally stunted yet independent children of Generation Y. Self- sufficiency is not simply what saves you, but what kills you as well. In this way, Boyle’s own “Trainspotting” is the whacked-out cousin to “127 Hours.” Instead of heroin, the rush is outdoor enthusiasm. But the point is the same: Caring about yourself too much is a path to certain destruction.
Boyle’s work sometimes feels disconnected, but this could be the overall theme to his work. “127 Hours” is a movie that will move you in ways beyond repulsion. Somehow, Boyle has made this story inspiring. It’s great film-making with a great performance at its center. A lot of director’s overshoot with ambition after winning an Oscar; Boyle might find himself back on the short list. Just don’t sit him next to Shia LaBeouf. Or perhaps I should just avoid disfigured hand jokes.