The survivor: ‘127 Hours’ goes into the head and heart of Utah hiker Aron Ralston
You have to hand it to Danny Boyle: He doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The director of “Trainspotting,’’ “Millions,’’ and “Slumdog Millionaire’’ has taken as his latest project a true story about a man stuck in a hole in the ground. In May 2003, during a day of solo canyon-hopping in Utah, 28-year-old Aron Ralston found himself trapped in a crevice with a giant boulder pinning his arm to a wall. He remained there for five days before a dull knife and a spot of horrific do-it-yourself surgery allowed him to escape.
Right there’s the problem: How do you make a movie about immobility? For a hyperactive stylist like Boyle, whose movies are at best thrillingly kinetic and at worst represent death by a thousand cuts, the solution turns out to be absurdly simple. He heads inward. “127 Hours’’ is a movie experience both grueling and transcendent, and its most intoxicating scenes play in Ralston’s head and heart as the days wear on. What begins as a story of survival becomes something infinitely more moving: a man’s journey back toward the human race.
When the film begins, Ralston doesn’t need anyone. He’s played by James Franco, that sly, skinny changeling of an actor, with an energy that’s almost frightening. Ralston jumps out of bed in the city and within seconds is barreling through the desert on a bicycle, ecstatic at being released once more from the bondage of civilization. Unlike Chris McCandless of “Into the Wild,’’ he’s not propelled by discontent or an unhappy childhood but by the sheer joy of being out in the world. Solitude is only part of the high.
At one point, Ralston crosses paths with two women hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and leads them to a hidden pool like a mischievous sherpa; the scene’s a plummet into abandon that flirts with eroticism and then lets it go. Our hero’s just not interested. Then karma comes calling in the form of that two-ton rock, and “127 Hours’’ settles in for the duration.
The particulars of Ralston’s ordeal are faithfully catalogued: the slowly falling level in his water bottle, the sunbeam that warms him for 20 minutes a day. Retrieving a dropped pocket-knife becomes an epic adventure in its own right. Ralston was trained as an engineer, and the part of his brain that isn’t seizing up with panic considers his plight as a classic mechanical problem, a matter of levers, pulleys, torque. The larger drama is that of an overconfident man slowly realizing he can’t ace the biggest test of his life.
Boyle jazzes this up as best he can, and sometimes his camera goes where it’s not necessary — up the drinking tube of Ralston’s CamelBak, for instance, or down a water bottle filled with the hiker’s own urine. At other moments, “127 Hours’’ pirouettes with absolute rightness into visuals that recalibrate everything we’ve seen, like the pullback that reveals how insignificant Ralston’s crevice — and Ralston himself — is in the vast, harsh beauty of the Utah wilderness. A similar shot worked in “Slumdog Millionaire’’ but it works better here: less show-offy, more brutally to the point.
The videos the hero records, first to document his fix and ultimately as a last will and testament, allow him (and Franco) to play to a narrowing audience with grim humor. As he weakens, his ghosts come out to play: parents (Treat Williams and Kate Burton), a beloved sister (Lizzy Caplan), friends, Aron’s younger self (Koleman Stinger). All the people he loves but thought he didn’t need, dropping in to taunt him with their kindness. They settle into the bottom of the crevice on a sofa, watching as he fades, and goading him by their very presence into one desperate last act.
There have been faintings reported in theaters when the next scene unspools; one of my own colleagues had to forcefully resist bolting for the exits, hand over mouth. Yet Boyle films the moment steadily and unexploitively: He looks but he doesn’t dwell. (That said, there’s one moment in Ralston’s improvised amputation that takes literal nerve on everybody’s part: director, actor, subject, and audience.)
The scene appalls but doesn’t offend; it’s a “Worst-Case-Scenario Survival Handbook’’ nightmare that resonates on the metaphysical level. “127 Hours’’ understands what Ralston had to sacrifice to the gods of mischance — the price he paid for the hubris of going into the desert solo — and by all accounts Ralston understood it as well. The movie ends with a burst of pealing, majestic Sigur Ros on the soundtrack and a religious vision of surpassing ordinariness. Sartre had it wrong, says “127 Hours.’’ Heaven is other people.