127 Hours features one of the most brutally graphic scenes of violence I've ever seen on screen. But unlike the many films these days (the Saws and Hostels, etc.) for which such scenes are commonplace, 127 Hours uses the extreme depiction not to underscore the depravity of man, but to viscerally communicate the preciousness of life and the perseverance of hope. The result is a film about the extremes of life that, for the viewer, feels like running a marathon or climbing a mountain: an experience that is excruciatingly painful and yet supremely cathartic.
The film recounts the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a hiker whose solo excursion in Utah's Canyonlands National Park turned horrifying when he fell into a crevice and had his lower right arm hand pinned by an immovable fallen boulder. For 127 hours, Ralston did everything he could to escape his predicament, all while watching his water supply diminish and his chances of rescue fade. Facing imminent death, Ralston resorted to the only remaining option for survival—severing his own arm to free himself from the boulder.
Everyone who goes in to this movie will know that scene is coming, and the film moves toward it with ominous anticipation. From the film's opening montage—where we see Aron packing for his hiking trip and accidentally forgetting his Swiss Army knife—we know that a brutal amputation scene awaits. But even though we might know the story and how it ends, director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Millions) tells it in an utterly invigorating way. Full of a sort of X-Games kinetic energy interspersed with poetic, ruminative quietness, 127 Hours is an exhilarating thrill ride of a movie that takes us inside the mind of a man who, up against the wall of mortality, decides life is worth the sacrifice of a limb.
Before the amputation climax, we get to know Aron enough to truly care about him. We pick up Aron's personality in part through the very style of the film: quick paced, lively, frenetic, colorful, glancing from one thing to another constantly. He's the type of thrillseeker who dangerously climbs in treacherous wilderness alone with rock music blaring in his headphones and careens down steep mountains on a bike, hardly flinching when he hits a rock and tumbles head-over-heels into a pile of cactus. He's the type of friendly 26-year-old who spontaneously befriends passersby and takes them to a hidden cave swimming pool, but is equally at home on a solo weekend in the desert where his only social connection is the video camera he talks to.
Invoking split screen techniques that recall Into the Wild, Boyle's illustrative, color-saturated, hyper-edited style sets the perfect mood for this movie—an adventure/survival story cut from the frontier cloth but firmly entrenched in Millennial clothes. Boyle is a contemporary, edgy director with a flair for old-school cinematic grandeur, MTV commercialism, and genre experimentation. So 127 Hours, which is sort of like a music video meets one-man off-Broadway arthouse play, is right up his alley.