Thursday, February 17, 2011

127 Hours will not leave you unmoved

Becoming a conjoined twin with an immovable object makes for a riveting piece of cinema – by Nick van der Leek

"For the first time since my arm was pinned against the wall of this Utah canyon, I am using my digital camcorder to videotape myself…What you're looking at there is my arm, going into the rock ... and there it is—stuck. It's been without circulation for 24 hours. It's pretty well gone."

127 Hours is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston's remarkable adventure in an isolated canyon. Director Danny Boyle [Slumdog Millionaire] says “it’s not like Into the Wild or something meditative like that. When he does go to the wild he doesn’t just sit there he …races through it with his earphones on and he’s fucking timing himself to try to get through it quicker than anyone else and try to climb higher than anyone else. It’s this restlessness about him that’s very urban.”

When asked how authentic the film was, Ralston said, “the movie is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama." That’s because Aron gave the director Danny Boyle, James Franco [playing Ralston] and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy a thorough immersion into his canyon domain. The camcorder used by James Franco in the film is also the same one Aron Ralston used whilst trapped in Blue John Canyon. Ralston told director Danny Boyle to have Franco recite lyrics from the jam band Phish, Ralston's favorite band, to make Franco’s portrayal as accurate as possible. And Ralston went a step further, sharing the videos he made in the canyon:

"My name is Aron Ralston. My parents are Donna and Larry Ralston, of Englewood, Colorado. Whoever finds this, please make an attempt to get this to them. Be sure of it. I would appreciate it."

“Aron doesn't show those videos to a lot of people,” James Franco has said, in an interview with Outside magazine. “He did show them to us, and they were incredibly powerful to see…This was somebody who was trying not to break down in front of his family…and you're watching it and you realize, Wow, this guy really believes he's going to die.”

Director Danny Boyle sets the $18 million flick up with speedy montages; traffic jams, urban scenes, strips of neon light and the buzz of busy living set into separate visual pillars. These montages convey a busy but compartmentalised experience of life, a safe, labelled, predictable, vapid unfolding of life, one that meets our expectations, a life we perhaps feel entitled to…

James Franco [who played the New Goblin in Spider-Man 1,2 and 3] brings a goofy energy to Boyle’s zippy, buoyant introduction. All of this carefree and colourful gusto carries the viewer rapidly towards the ultra-risky cave antics Ralston shares with two girls he meets in the canyon. The glitzy start contrasts with the sobering meat of the flick; the cool grey hues that follow of the canyon, the eerie orange glows that penetrate his prison, and of course, the claustrophobic shadows and stillness. Boyle spruces up Ralston’s dreary mausoleum with brightly ironic hallucinations that infrequently offer some relief.

Somehow we can all identify with Franco’s free spiritedness which is why the sudden loss of that freedom is so compelling. Either way, we last saw that fiendish vagabond spirit in Chris MacCandless [from Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild]. This book inspired the real Ralston to leave his job as a mechanical engineer with Intel in 2002 in order to do what had at that point, never been done: climb all of Colorado's "fourteeners", or peaks over 14,000 feet high during the winter season. In both McCandless and Ralston we see the unspoken challenge to the counterfeit culture and values of our time. We see in them a half-rational response to the call of the great outdoors. Some have criticised both for their reckless abandonment. Most people though, are probably inspired by the charisma that comes with such bold living.

New York Times review A.O. Scott writes: “To say that this movie gets under your skin is only barely a figure of speech. It pins you down, shakes you up and leaves you glad to be alive.” It’s a story everyone can identify with. Remember, Ralston ran into trouble not on a high 14 000 foot peak in the middle of a howling gale; instead he found himself trapped doing what anyone casually walking in the wilderness might have done. What is gratifying is the humor and honesty that balances the drama throughout. Reflecting on his mistakes at one point — in particular, neglecting to tell anyone where he was going — Ralston sums it up with the one word that is appropriate: “Oops.”
The underlying theme to 127 Hours is humility, something conspicuously absent in modern living. That realisation hits home when Ralston says: “This rock has been waiting for me my whole life.” The director quotes Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses in this respect, saying that grace is “the power that heals men, and brings them to safety long after all other resources are exhausted.” But hidden in this enlightenment is a revived humility.
Ralston recognised early on that survival would mean amputating his arm but he understandably put off this grisly task partly because to begin with he lacked the resolve, but more practically, he thought he would not be able to cut through solid bone with a blunt pocket knife.

How he solved this conundrum is something audiences must see for themselves. The amputation sequence is harrowing, so much so that even the director shot the scene only once. While audiences have visited amputated limbs before, from Luke in Star Wars to a chopped off pinkie in The Piano, I am not sure if I can honestly say I have seen worse. It is undoubtedly tough to watch, so if you have a blindfold and earplugs, you may want to use them for five full minutes. Having said that, this terrible scene is a vital element of an incredible story.

It’s easy to get hooked on Ralston’s brew of adrenalin. The good news is there’s lots more of it. There’s Ralston’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place and a trove of Youtube videos.
In 2004 Aron Ralston returned to the scene of the accident to scatter the ashes of his amputated arm on the boulder that had trapped him. Whilst recounting the story to NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Ralston was overwhelmed at the point just after he freed himself from the boulder [and lost his arm]. It’s a moment he recognised triumphantly as the moment he won his life back. It is also an experience he is explicitly grateful for for changing his life.

“What gets him out of there is not power, which everybody thinks it is, but the change that comes from within him,” according to Boyle. In the end it took 13 men with a winch and a hydraulic jack to lift the boulder high enough to retrieve Aron's arm from the canyon. Since the accident, Ralston has resumed his adventurous lifestyle, and at last count had summitted more than 100 of Colorado’s highest peaks.

Score: 8.5/10

1 hour 35 minutes
Directed by Danny Boyle;
Written by Mr. Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston;
Directors of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

No comments: