127 Hours is a film about Aron Ralston, a climber who became trapped in a canyon for several days, his only course being to cut off his forearm. It’s the second Danny Boyle film I’ve seen (after Slumdog Millionaire), and once again I’m very impressed, though the two movies are very different.
When we first see Aron (played brilliantly by James Franco), he’s leaving home for an expedition, with no care to answer his family’s phone messages, or even to turn off the dripping tap he used to fill his canteen. Aron travels to Utah, and begins hiking; presently, he meets two lost female hikers, and guides them to the pool for which they’re searching. The Aron we meet in these first fifteen minutes is cocky, self-assured, slightly insufferable… yet still ultimately likeable, because he is so clearly in his element out here in the wilderness.
Things change, though, when Aron travels through a particularly narrow part of Blue John Canyon and dislodges a boulder, which falls and wedges his arm against the canyon wall. He can’t move the rock or his arm, no one can hear him shout – so there he stays for most of the rest of the film.
This could, of course, have been a recipe for a very monotonous movie, but Boyle and Franco extract a remarkable amount of variety from the situation. Franco shows many sides to Aron’s character, as he shuttles back and forth between practicality, despair and delirium. On the directorial side, there’s some clever intercutting that gradually blurs the line between reality and hallucination, as Aron thinks about his past and the outside world. There’s also a strong sense of claustrophobia in the filming. The scene in which Aron cuts through his arm is, as one might expect, bloody and hard to watch, but filmed in a similar way to the rest of the movie, as though to emphasise that the quality of this experience is not that different from any of the others Aron has gone through whilst trapped.
One of the other things that struck me about 127 Hours was its great use of music, as when Aron’s (ultimately futile) attempt after a couple of days to rig up a pulley is counterpointed by Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ on the soundtrack. Then there’s the ending, when Aron has made it out of the canyon and finds help; this entire segment is accompanied by the music of Sigur Rós, the default soundtrack, it seems, to big/epic/uplifting visuals these days. But whilst the music feels triumphant, what’s on screen doesn’t quite feel unambiguously so, because Aron is still desperate for water and hardly out of danger yet. Yes, there is some sense of triumph over the odds, and why not, because Aron is lucky to be alive after what he went through. But the main feeling I get from the ending is of life going on; which, I suppose, is what it does, following even the most extreme circumstances.