The closest I have ever come to throwing up in the cinema
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours documents the story of climber Aron Ralston, who journeyed to Utah’s Blue Canyon alone and lived to regret it. The important part is that he did live, despite his arm being trapped beneath a boulder for – you guessed it – 127 hours. As revealed in his memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (which the film is based upon), Ralston amputated his crushed arm so he could escape.
By the bloody climax of the film I was extremely glad to have paid top whack for the largest coffee money can buy. The empty cup provided an excellent solution when I thought I was going to be sick. I’ve never broken a bone, but others have told me you can sometimes hear the crack. The gunshot-like sounds of Ralston breaking his radius and ulna, followed by the squelching as he hacks his way through all the tissues of his forearm (according to the book this took over 40 minutes) were enough to convince me that I’ve never felt true pain.
So, James Franco starts the film looking like a rough ‘n’ ready cowboy (thanks to the paisley scarf), but finishes it looking more like a victim from the Saw franchise.
Despite this unfortunate turn around, costumes (designed by Suttirat Larlarb) are one of the most impressive features of this movie. Photos of the real Aron Ralston show how well-matched the costumes and props were to those of Ralston’s experience. Attention to detail throughout the six days of Aron’s entrapment also creates a meticulous sense of his reality; as time passes Aron’s hair becomes grey with dust, and the battery level on his camera gradually depletes. However, one detail seemed rather amiss – Ralston’s facial hair doesn’t seem to grow at all throughout the film.
The highly physical nature of Aron’s thirst also makes Franco’s performance painful to watch. The frenzied and tortured way in which he drinks hammers home how first-worlders today often take water supplies for granted. He attacks the bottle greedily before abruptly stopping, as if each time the water hits his brain it provides the concentration to remind him of the severity of his situation, motivating him to make his meagre supplies last as long as possible.
In spite of these attempts, Aron’s litre-ish of water doesn’t last 127 hours. After peeing into his empty camelback container, Aron realises that he has the choice of drinking his own urine or slowly dying of thirst (the 800 lb boulder on his arm clearly isn’t helping matters). This makes for another nauseating sequence.
Throughout the movie water is shot in an unusual way, sometimes from below as Aron sucks it into his mouth, or from above as it rises up his drinking tube. The sight of his pee bubbling up the narrow tube leads to one of the wittier moments in the film; Ralston remarks ‘tastes like a bag of piss’. Yes, in spite of the grim subject matter Boyle has still found room for humour in his screenplay (co-written with Simon Beaufoy).
Ralston’s unbelievable strength of character extends to his continual appreciation of nature. He reports sightings of a raven flying over his crevasse around 8am each morning. This allows for several awe-inspiring panoramic shots of sky and stone – the colours making for a beautiful contrast.
The simple shooting style throughout ensures that gimmicky techniques do not detract attention from the details of the story, a criticism relevant to many recent 3D features (Titanic re-release anyone?). Instead extreme close-ups provide optimum presentation of the characters’ emotions, and splitting the screen into multiple images effectively conveys Ralston’s dehydrated delirium.
127 Hours is both an amazing story and an impeccable cinematic achievement; Aron Ralston’s cameo also suggests Boyle’s retelling has his approval. Not only is it incredible that Ralston was able to find the inner and outer strength to saw off his own arm after six days with barely any food or water, he also found his way out of the canyon whilst bleeding profusely. (This may not have been possible without a trick from Greek mythology; Aron used a length of climbing rope in case he needed to retrace his steps, just like Theseus’ ball of string).
In my opinion it is difficult to find fault with this film, though I did spot a couple of continuity errors early on. Still, I think it will be hard for Danny Boyle to top this with his next picture. Then again, I suppose that’s what people said about Slumdog Millionaire.
EDIT: What Danny did next…read my review of 2013’s Trance here.