Yeah, OK, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” is the movie about the guy who cut his arm off.
But it’s not just a movie about a guy cutting off his arm.
Rather, it’s about courage and adventure, about taking stock and embracing life. It’s about a personal journey and coming face to face: with your worst fears, your greatest strength, yourself in all your flawed reality.
Based on the memoir by Aron Ralston, “127 Hours” chronicles Ralston’s well-publicized 2003 accident in which, while hiking alone in the mountain canyons outside Moab, Utah, Ralston fell in a crevasse and landed with a rock pinning his arm, miles from help or other humans. After four days, out of water and food, confronting death, he used a dull pocketknife to sever his arm, then walked to safety.
Just based on those facts, “127 Hours” could have been the same movie as “Buried,” where a guy wakes up in a coffin and has to figure out how to save himself. But Boyle is too inquisitive and imaginative a director to make that claustrophobic a film.
Instead, he spends the first half hour of the film establishing Ralston (played with wonderful range by James Franco) as both a good-hearted type and an adventurous soul – one who escapes from the rat race for a weekend of biking, hiking and solo climbing. He comes across a pair of hikers (Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara) and shows them a few of his favorite places, then heads off on his own.
But a misstep in a crevasse dislodges a boulder; he and it fall together and he lands on the bottom with his arm pinned under the rock. Nothing he tries – chipping at the rock, creating a pulley system, sheer brute force – works to dislodge his arm from its trap.
Though he gulps water at first, Ralston quickly realizes that this is life-and-death and begins rationing what he has left. He also assesses his equipment and what opportunities it might afford him. But mostly he stands there (and eventually sits, having put together a sling out of ropes), realizing that his life is running out.
His dreams – sleeping and otherwise – take him back to his childhood and his family, his parents (who he sometimes avoided because their very existence seemed to restrict his sense of personal freedom), the girl he loved but couldn’t quite commit to. He fantasizes about the two women he met before his fall and the party they invited him to, and then about liquid – beverages of all flavors and colors – that he would dearly love to have.
He also uses both his digital camera and his video camera to chronicle his captivity. He creates a video diary where he assesses his situation on a semi-daily basis: amount of water left, latest unsuccessful efforts to free himself, physical conditions in his tiny natural cell. He goes so far as to perform all the voices in a mock radio show, talking about his own stupidity in not telling anyone where he was going – or even that he was going.
Yet, as eloquent a statement about the power of and need for human interaction – “Only connect,” as E.M. Forster put it – as “127 Hours” is, it is never a sermon or lecture. And while it is a story about a man stuck in a hole, Boyle’s film – like all of his films from “Trainspotting” to “Slumdog Millionaire” – is dynamic and alive, a celebration of life instead of a contemplation of death. It radiates the colors of the desert and its environs and captures the power of nature – both as an awe-inspiring surrounding and as a potentially deadly and uncaring force.
This is Franco’s film from start to finish and shows what a deft and flexible actor he can be, in ways that few of his previous films have allowed him. The fear and fearlessness, the confidence and charm, the frustration and introspection – they’re all there in Franco’s performance.
And yes – the scene of self-surgery is intense. The whole film is intense. “127 Hours” vibrates with life and pain and exultation, with pushing past frustration and regret to reengage with life in stark and meaningful ways. It’s absolutely one of the year’s best.