Sunday 11 September 2016

Movie Review: 127 Hours (2010)

A biographical survival story, 127 Hours is a glossy treatment of a harrowing incident. The film successfully transforms a tale of claustrophobic confinement into a wild journey of a deeply stressed mind.

Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a confident mountaineer, adventurer and canyoneer. He sets off for a solo hike through Utah's Canyonlands National Park, without telling anyone what his plans are. During the day he meets and befriends two other hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), but they part ways and he continues on his own.

While traversing a narrow slot canyon in an isolated area of the park, a small boulder gives way, Aron stumbles and falls deeper in the crevasse, and the boulder smashes onto his right arm, trapping it against the canyon wall. With his one free hand Aron cannot move the boulder, and with limited food, water and equipment, he faces diminishing prospects for survival. After several days trying to free himself, Aron has to consider the drastic option of cutting his own arm off to free himself.

Directed by Danny Boyle, 127 Hours is based on real events that took place in 2003, later chronicled in a book by Ralston. Any story constructed around a single and well-known torturous event affecting one individual is by definition narrowly delineated. The film's main challenge is to create a drama out of an ordeal of confinement, with most of the trauma occurring in Aron's head. Thanks to a committed James Franco performance and an audacious, often hallucinatory style, Boyle succeeds in fully maintaining interest, and smartly limits the running length to a compact 93 minutes.

Boyle co-wrote the script, and the build-up is carefully constructed to convincingly convey a man running out of options. Aron stays mentally strong and tries everything at his disposal to free himself, but with supplies running out and his mind increasingly hallucinating, his choices narrow down to dying of dehydration or attempting the unthinkable.

The film sets up the pivotal arm amputation scene with perfect timing, and when it arrives it is nothing short of harrowing. Amateur self-administered limb-chopping surgery using a blunt knife is not for the faint of heart, and the film's climax requires a strong stomach. Using a combination of clever editing, realistic make-up, gruesome sound effects and Franco jumping all-in to the agony pool, director and star create an unforgettable sequence, fully worthy of all the carefully designed anticipation.

127 Hours does not shy away from criticizing Aron's action in setting off into the canyon alone and without telling anyone what his plans are. Cockiness meets comeuppance, and trapped by the boulder, he comes face to face with his limitations. The film's other theme is the mind's ability to travel when the body is trapped. Many of Aron's thoughts and emotions veer towards family and girlfriend memories, regrets, and aspirations, recreated by Boyle along the seam where sleep-deprived dreaminess holds hands with the consciousness of a nightmare in progress.

The duel between immovable obstacle and irresistible determination took 127 Hours to resolve, and ended in partial compromise: the boulder got to keep a piece of Aron Ralston, but he reconfirmed the phenomenal human desire to survive under all circumstances.

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