The brave and the boulder – 127 Hours review

127 Hours – Starring James Franco. Directed by Danny Boyle. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

Why do people climb a mountain “just because it’s there”? I find that reasoning to be wildly unsatisfying, and it has led me to judge adrenaline junkies and extreme sportsmen and women as flighty and undeserving of our adulation. I’m a film critic – I need motive. In 2003, self-proclaimed lone wolf and mountain climber Aron Ralston decided to go canyoning in Utah without telling a soul. He accidentally slipped into a lonely crack in the Earth, and found his arm pinned by a giant boulder. If he was an unstoppable force, he had just met his immovable object. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours documents the time between Ralston finding himself in this unenviable situation and ultimately freeing himself (in an even less enviable way). I applaud the film because it doesn’t make out Ralston to be one of those “just because it’s there” dudes (although he perhaps may have thought of himself as such beforehand). As he learns about himself in this 127 hour period of isolation, his motives have little to do with the canyons and the mountains “being there” as much as his need to be gone; to be away from the world; to be alone. The arc of this film is not of a man getting trapped and finally getting free. It’s of a man who has been isolated from the world for far more than 127 hours, and finally calling out for ‘help’.

James Franco stars as Ralston, and gives the performance of a lifetime. The film is built around his performance; the film is his performance. He’s a frustratingly peppy figure at times; sympathetic, funny, cruel, stupid, smart and tender where appropriate. When he is first trapped, we know that he knows there is only one way out. The rest of the film shows him coming to terms with this decision, exploring every other option, as if he were a man going through the seven stages of grief. When he finally must do the unthinkable – and for those of you who want to avoid the spoilers of real life, perhaps look away now – he does it with steely determination and tragic resignation. Perhaps there is no other way to cut off your own arm.

I’m sure there are some who mock 127 Hours for being “the movie about the guy who cuts off his own arm” – I know, because I was one of them. And that is still true; this is indeed a movie about a guy who cuts off his own arm, and the scene in which it happens is as visceral, unpleasant and cathartic as cinema gets. But there can be more to a scene of self-amputation than Saw-esque gore. As we witness through Ralston’s fever dreams, hallucinations and the occasional speeches to his portable video camera, he is a man who ultimately decides he would rather surrender one of his limbs to see his family, friends and lovers again than die alone in the wilderness. The moment he decides to chop off his own arm is the moment he self-actualises this desire, and he becomes a character of truly admirable valour.

The film is full of Danny Boyle-isms; the over-exposed colour palette, the frenetic editing, the grandiose climactic moments of self-sacrifice and redemption. It’s Boyle at his most Boyle. Sometimes you have to come to terms with the fact that a filmmaker will tell the story in their own way. It’s up to us to decide whether their style is fitting for the tale they tell. Here – and this may be a rare instance for Boyle’s hi-NRG techniques – it works. As for the scene, well, we know it’s coming the moment the film begins, yet still it catches us by surprise. Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy know that this is the one moment of the film that doesn’t need anything more than its own horrifying essence to be engrossing, and they wisely side-step any voiceover narration or stylistic techniques to add gravitas. And that is another less appreciated Boyle-ism; he does indeed like to play things big, but he also knows when to play things small. 127 Hours gets the balance just right.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

127 Hours opens across Australia 10th February, 2011.

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