A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2011

127 HOURS  j

2010, R, 93 mins.


Aron Ralston: James Franco / Megan: Amber Tamblyn / Kristi: Kate Mara / Rana: Clemence Poesy / Aron’s dad: Treat Williams / Aron’s mom: Kate Burton / Sonja: Lizzy Caplan

Directed by Danny Boyle / Written by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book 'Between a Rock and a Hard Place' by Aron Ralston.

There is perhaps no film that could ever fully encompass what Aron Ralston went through during his hiking expedition in Blue John Canyon, Utah on April of 2003.  Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS – based on Ralston's 2004 published memoir, BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE – tries its best to evoke what it must have been like.  The book (no spoiler warning here; this is based on true events, after all) chronicled Ralston's experience of having his arm trapped by a large boulder while in a Utah desert canyon for five days having only minimal food, water, a camcorder, some basic climber’s provisions, and a very rusty and inadequately sharp pocket knife.  After several days and no apparent hope of rescue or removing the boulder, he did the unimaginable by severing his arm to escape.   

How did all of this happen?  127 HOURS tells us.  Aron (played in a tour de force performance of a lifetime by James Franco) was a former Intel engineer before he abandoned that profession to turn to rugged and extreme outdoor activities.  On a Friday night in April of 2003 the free-wheeling, spontaneous, and throw-caution-to-the wind adventurer leaves his home in Aspen, Colorado so that he can enjoy his favouite pastime: driving out to Utah's National Park canyons and deserts to do some exploring and climbing.  For him, there is no other natural high that can compare: this man lives for the exhilaration of the outdoors.   

During his exploration he encounters a pair of lost female hikers (Amber Tamblin and Kate Mara) and he decides to not only help them find their path, but he also takes them to a hidden pool for some enjoyable downtime.  The three do eventually part ways and Aron continues on his journey, but one  particular climb has dire results: he slips and tumbles down a very narrow and dark shaft and when he hits the bottom he finds his right arm crushed and pinned by a large boulder.  Realizing that the boulder would require far more than his own strength to remove, Aron comes to grips with the fact that he is hopelessly stuck.   

What could possibly make this situation worse?  Aron selfishly and foolishly ignored to let anyone (including his family) know where he was going and – doh! – he did not take a cell phone with him, not to mention that he neglected to take his Swiss Army Knife and instead hastily opted for a shoddy and cheap utility knife (which the real Aron described as “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool”).  Aron has minimal food and very little water, the lack of the latter which would ultimately prove fatal if trapped in the desert heat for days on end.  After several botched (but fairly ingenious) attempts to dislodge the boulder, Aron starts to see that an impending death is a very real possibility.  Five days go by and with little water left and knowing the end is near, he goes out of his way to videotape a last goodbye to his family and even etches his own epitaph on the canyon wall.  He becomes delirious and physically sick and begins to hallucinate.  How he manages to pull together what was left of his inner fortitude is beyond comprehension, but Aron does gather up his last strength (and adrenaline induced nerve and courage) and creates a tunicate and slowly and methodically begins to brutally gnaw away at what was left of his arm with a knife that barely looks like it could cut through a ham sandwich. 

Danny Boyle has apparently wanted to film Aron's real life trauma for years and he utilized most of his multiple Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE crew to bring his story to silver screen fruition.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, Boyle has certainly gained a deserved reputation for being a filmmaker that never opts to make the same film twice (just look at his last three films, including SLUMDOG, SUNSHINE, and MILLIONS and you’ll see) and few directors have revealed such an untapped passion to tackle any subject matter; 127 HOURS is definitely no exception. 

One aspect that Boyle understands about this story is that Aron is not a figure of instant hero worship: at times, he presented as a cocky, arrogant, and negligent adventurer that takes bold challenges without really planning them through.  He is a narrow-minded figure hell bent on doing what he wants to do when he wants on his own terms and regardless of what others think.  Yet, on the other hand, it’s impossible not to sympathize with his plight, being trapped by no fault of his own and being completely isolated from civilization.  For that, 127 HOURS becomes a gripping and gut-wrenching testament of a risky, but headstrong, smart, and cunningly brave young man that went to lengths many may not have in order to free himself from death. 

This film would not work if it were not for James Franco’s casting, and within the first few minutes of the film he shows that he is more than adept for capturing Aron’s boyish brashness, jubilant confidence, and untamed spirit for high adventure.  Yet, when he does get stranded and essentially remains the one-man focal point for the remainder of the film, Franco’s performance morphs into one of teeth-clenched resolve and animalistic intensity when faced with impossible-to-overcome odds and personal pressures.  Franco has been largely know as a fairly lightweight comic actor as of late (granted, he’s deceptively good at it: see PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), but 127 HOURS revels in how naturally he can dial himself into a multi-faceted and disturbed character and make his near-death situation feel all the more hauntingly tangible.  Few performers would be able to carry a film like this – in a largely solo effort - so self-assuredly as Franco does here ands he is the main reason we become so engaged in the film. 

Yet, for as much as I extensively admired Franco’s work in 127 HOURS, the film suffers from the weight of far, far too much stylistic hubris from Boyle that only serves to subvert the human element and drama from the proceedings.  Boyle is as technically proficient as any working director today and has never made an awful looking film, and in 127 HOURS he makes stupendous use of cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak’s lush, sun-drenched, and simultaneously beautiful and foreboding Utah landscapes.  Unfortunately, Boyle never really finds a way to settle the film down from its frequent hyperkinetic and light-speed paced visual excesses, which ultimately make the film reverberate more as a MTV travelogue music video than a harsh, gritty, and cinema vérité reconstruction of Aron’s nightmarish ordeal. 

Again, it’s not that the cinematic techniques utilized here are amateurish, just that they are improperly and impersonally used.  Boyle liberally uses split screens, multiple film stocks, head spinning editing, and an annoyingly and aggressively bombastic music score by SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s A.H. Rahman that batters us so numbingly that it takes us out of the emotional core of Aron’s story and predicament.  I looked at wickedly inventive shots (like one where we see the bottle’s point of view of Aron drinking from it and another where we see urine being slurped from it - yuck) and was left wondering for what purpose does this serve, other than to look technically accomplished?   Boyle’s unsubtle style also serves the counterproductive purpose of draining out any amount of natural tension and intrigue that the build-up to Aron’s final act could have had.  The infamous amputation scene – which caused many to notoriously flee screenings – is a bravura exercise is makeup design and methodical editing (you are made to think you are seeing more than you actually do), but the spine-tingling and cringe worthy moment seems more about admiring the technique than it does about placing yourself in the mindset of what Aron was mentally going through. 

127 HOURS reminded me considerably of a much better film about one lone man placed in a unpromising situation with no apparent resolution – BURIED.  That film – which featured a man buried alive through the entire running time – built a level of Hitchcockian suspense and thrills for how it immersed us in the man’s hellishly claustrophobic  situation.  The film combined a jarringly credible lead performance with low-key and unflashy visual resourcefulness to evoke the protagonist’s ordeal.  127 HOURS gets that difficult formula half right:  Franco’s virtuoso performance emotionally lures us in to his character’s story, but Boyle’s scrambled, dizzying, restless, and needlessly self-indulgent aesthetic techniques push us away.  Perhaps the sheer limitations of Aron’s story – the dude can’t move from one spot through three-quarters of the film – convinced Boyle that a tenaciously spastic visual sheen was the only way to impart intensity into it.  BURIED proved, however, that you could do just the opposite within the limitedness of a script and premise.  127 HOURS is a perplexing film to hold in high reverence: it’s astoundingly acted, has a riveting true story of survival, and is artistically dazzling, but Boyle’s directorial method somewhat betrays the central essence and raw power of the human story of perseverance. 

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