Deep breath… Okay.
This is such good filmmaking. I could go on and on about how great and amazing and whatever Danny Boyle is, but that would be foolish. Instead, I’ll do my best to try to capture with words and sentences some part of how I felt about his latest film.
127 Hours is about a guy who gets his hand stuck between a rock and a hard place for 127 hours before he ends up cutting his own arm off to get free. This is not a complex story — it is, by very definition, easy to follow. For the majority of the film, you don’t really go anywhere and the main character is limited in terms of what he can do to keep us entertained. Before it started inspiring critics to shout praises from the rooftops, there were a lot of people who were understandably skeptical about this kind of story’s ability to engage an audience for 90 minutes. I’ll go ahead and join the chorus of critics right now and tell you it’s not an issue.
Boyle doesn’t start us off in the Canyon with Aron (played by James Franco). Instead, we follow him there from his house. We learn a little about him, what kind of guy he is. We can’t help but like him, even as we come to understand, very early on, that he’s a bit thick-headed. Anyway. That’s all set-up stuff. The first real surprise comes when he takes his fall.
Of course, no one is going to be shocked that he gets stuck, but what is shocking is how effectively we get inside the dilemma as he tries, at the very beginning, to get free. Boyle somehow draws us into the creeping horror of feeling trapped — the realization that Aron — and we, by proxy — are stuck, and there is nothing, no amount of pulling, or pushing, or yelling, or anything that will get that hand free. Only when Aron’s yells of effort and frustration die out and he comes to fully accept his predicament, only then, 20 minutes in, does the title finally settle onto the screen: “127 Hours” — in simple, unassuming white font. Here is where the story really starts.
So how do Danny Boyle and James Franco keep us engaged for the balance of the film? I’m not going to tell you, except to say that Franco deserves every single vibration of Oscar buzz he’s been getting. And, cinematically, there are sequences that undid me. We see every little space, every angle of Aron’s five-day prison. Nothing that was important to him in that duration is denied the audience. We get it all. All the pain and all the glory of enlightenment that finds those who find themselves facing a slow, seemingly inescapably death, alone, in the wilderness.
This isn’t really about the triumph of a man who cuts his own arm off to survive. This is about a man who ends up with an opportunity to think hard about why he is where he is, and what he lost even before his fall, what he carelessly gave up. We find in this film a man humbled, who loses his arm but finds the real reason for living.
I’ll admit I was squeamish going in. The realistic bloody stuff isn’t my thing. Horror/fantasy/sci-fi gore is mostly annoying, but also mostly forgettable. I figured I’d have a pretty tough time with watching the really gruesome bits of this film. I won’t deny that it was, indeed, difficult material. I cringed for full minutes at a time and wanted to look away often.
But even so, I was so thoroughly tied to Aron’s character by that point in the film that I felt the necessity of his action almost the way he must have felt it. There’s a desperate, grim determination that motivates the music, the sound, the cuts (both filmic and… otherwise), and the angles that also runs through the audience. The sensation was, for me, similar to what I felt when I had to clean gravel out of a deep scrape as a kid. The pain was terrible, but it had to be done.
This isn’t an easy movie to “spoil.” If Aron hadn’t have escaped, there would be no movie. But his catharsis, his revelation, this is what pushes the work into a category of beauty occupied only by films that motivate us to action after we’ve parted their company. I called my mom. What Aron gained in that canyon, stuck between that rock and that hard place for so long, we can also gain by watching carefully, by paying attention. We can be moved to do as he did, and tie ourselves more closely to the people we love. We ought to thank God for films like this.
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