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.
Franco is perfect for the immense job of carrying the 90-minute film all by himself (save for a few interactions with a pair of female hikers, and several flashback or hallucination scenes with Aron and his family/friends). Franco's work in 127 Hours rivals Ryan Reynolds' excellent performance in the claustrophobic thriller Buried as the best one-man-show of 2010. Franco captures the sometimes resolute, sometimes resigned, sometimes losing-it psyche of an adventurer rendered immobile for five days, as the specter of mortality begins to loom larger and larger in an anonymous earthen crevice that feels more and more like coffin.
Is Aron meant to die in this canyon? Was this belligerent boulder waiting for eons in this desert to one day confront and vanquish Aron? Or will this be the hour of reckoning and redemption toward which everything in his life has been leading? The 127 hours of life-or-death conflict that unfold in the canyon prove to be a time of synthesis for Aron, where everything in his life is remembered, or regretted, or hoped for. In these compressed and yet long hours, he sees with increasing clarity the very essence of life—that it is a thing of inexpressible beauty, unfathomable love, and desperate fragility. Ultimately it is a vision of his future—as a father of a little boy with whom he can explore and experience more joyful wonders—that gives him the drive to do what he needs to do, with a dull pocketknife and a makeshift tourniquet, to make a future life possible.
The entire 90 minutes of the film are exhilarating and heart throbbing, but the last 15 will go down in cinematic history as one of the all time rawest expressions of transcendence through cathartic violence. More akin to the climax of The Passion of The Christ than a Tarantino film, the finale here is a stirring, emotional, excruciating, and bloody affair. [Some viewers have passed out or vomited at advance screenings.] Is the violence too much? Too close? Too long? Probably. I think Boyle could have toned it down and achieved a similar effect. But this is a movie about extremes. And it's about the messiness of embodied existence in a fallen world of pain and havoc.
Once the arduous task of self-amputation is over and Aron makes his way out into freedom and rescue in the open desert, the film becomes truly transcendent. Aided by a rousing Sigur Ros song on the soundtrack, the moment is overwhelming in its hope and catharsis. I can only compare it to the final minutes of United 93—which, like 127 Hours, has a known outcome and yet packs a visceral punch in capturing existential desperation and the will to survive.
127 Hours has a happier ending than United 93, but both films are hopeful in their depiction of courage and determination in the face of death. If one has any doubt about how precious a gift life is, simply watch either of these films, or read any number of accounts of similar tales of the extreme lengths we take to survive. We all have an inherent sense that life is not something to be easily conceded. Rather, it is to be clung to, fought for, and bled for. Because we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And because we have a purpose.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What is the significance of Aron's various visions and flashbacks? How do they reflect what he values, or learns to value, over the course of his ordeal?
- What does this film say about the sanctity of life?
- An important line in the film is "Oops." How is this moment of self-realization a turning point for Aron?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
127 Hours is rated R language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images. It's not intended for children, and squeamish adults should approach with caution. There are only a few scenes of violence, but they are incredibly graphic and visceral. Several people have fainted or vomited in advance screenings during the amputation scene. Viewers might consider closing their eyes for the amputation sequence, though even the sounds (including two loud bone cracks as Aron intentionally breaks his arm) are enough to make one squirm.
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