127 Hours (2010)
Danny Boyle brings thrill-seeker Aron Ralston’s gripping true story of survival to the screen in this gripping and surprisingly intense drama.
Written by: Chris Pandolfi January 3, 2011
I think there is inherent in mountain climbers and outdoor thrill seekers a certain degree of arrogance. To subject yourself to such extreme environmental conditions and believe that you’re nearly invincible requires a great deal of confidence, if not something of a superiority complex. I say this as someone who has never scaled a mountain and has absolutely no intention of ever doing so; perhaps it’s coming from a place of jealousy, since being unwilling to take such risks has not allowed me to live life to the fullest. But then again, I can’t help it if I find the indoors far more comfortable and a whole lot safer. And I’m certainly not the kind of person that wants to risk life and limb simply for the sake of challenging myself and/or feeling an adrenaline rush.
On the basis of his life, there can be no doubt that Aron Ralston is such a person. In 2002, he quit his mechanical engineering position at Intel to fully devote himself to a project that began in 1998: Scaling solo all fifty-three of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. He became the first person to achieve this goal in 2005. In 2008, he climbed Argentina’s Ojos de Salado and Monte Pissis. That same year, he climbed Alaska’s Mount McKinley and actually skied down from its summit, which is more than 20,000 feet high. In 2009, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Given this track record, it should come as no surprise that he someday plans to scale Mount Everest.
His most publicized expedition was in April of 2003. While hiking Blue John Canyon in Moab, Utah, he slipped and fell into a crevice, causing a dislodged boulder to pin his right arm against the canyon wall; five days later, facing dehydration and delirium, he was forced to sever his arm below the elbow with a dull pocket knife. He would later write about this experience in his autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which would soon become a New York Times bestseller. This means, of course, that every one of Ralston’s post-2003 expeditions were literally done single handedly. I have to admit, I truly don’t understand this mindset. After such a traumatic experience, how on earth would anyone be able to even look at a rock formation, let alone scale it?
Ralston’s 2003 accident has found its way into the hands of director Danny Boyle and been turned into the film 127 Hours, an intense and shocking but also life-affirming man-against-nature drama. Ralston is portrayed by James Franco, much like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, pushes himself to the very limits of physical and psychological endurance to produce a truly amazing performance, especially since the entire film is essentially a one-man show. We watch with helpless fascination as he struggles, not only against the boulder pinning his arm, but also against hunger, dehydration, and insanity, his mind often giving way to vivid daydreams and disturbing insights. We also watch as he tries to keep a level head and work with whatever tools he has at his disposal.
Intertwined with his ordeal are harsh but cleansing periods of confession and self criticism, which he makes into video testimonials on his digital camcorder. One of the film’s best scenes is when he imagines he’s a guest on a talk show. Boyle doesn’t go for the obvious and show him in a fully furnished TV studio; he instead shows Ralston exactly as he is in the canyon. We do, however, hear a phantom audience, who are perfectly timed to Ralston as he vocally shifts back and forth between himself and the loud-mouthed host. In that imaginary interview, we learn that Ralston never left a note saying where he was going, which means no one would know where to look once they realized he was missing. Why would he be that careless? Because he thought he could be a hero. Ah, but as Gordon Lightfoot once observed, heroes often fail.
He also uses the camcorder to film his goodbyes to his family and friends. He’s especially sorry to his mother; he regrets the day the let the answering machine take her phone call, even though he was home at the time. He also regrets the way he handled his relationship with his girlfriend, Rana (Clémence Poésy), who said on their last date that he would be awfully lonely someday.
The arm severing scene is difficult to sit through. I’ve seen horror movies in which people are hacked to bits and blood sprays everywhere, and I don’t even blink; watching the final scenes of 127 Hours, I squirmed in my seat, winced, gritted my teeth, and just wanted the whole thing to be over and done with. Amazing how audiences can react so differently, depending on the context. Boyle does an amazing job of depicting the genuine horror of the situation. He doesn’t shy away from it, and yet he captures it in such a way that it seems neither gory nor exploitive. It’s a real moment in the life of a real person. The greatest accomplishment, however, was making me thankful for the things I take for granted on a daily basis, like access to food and water. And yes, even the love of my family.