Barely fifteen minutes into the film, Aron Ralston — a risk-taking outdoorsman who has decided to tackle some extremely rocky terrain (the film is set in Utah) entirely on his own, and without (of course!) telling anyone where he was heading — attempts to tiptoe his way across a crevice, plants his foot on a rock, finds out that it’s not nearly as stable as he thought it was, and… down he goes. Compounding the problem: the rock itself has plummeted down after him, pinning his hand to a wall. He’s unhurt otherwise — he never reaches the bottom — but he can’t move much, either, and escape seems impossible. As horrifying, life-threatening predicaments go, it’s a doozy.
What follows for the next hour-and-a-half — which cover a little over five days, hence the 127 hours of the title — is an incredibly detailed look at Ralston’s efforts to free himself: the minutiae, if you will, of survival. The resourceful young man tries everything from prying the boulder loose with a knife to lifting it free with a homemade pulley system that he has somehow managed to build. Nothing works. Meanwhile, his hand — squashed beneath all that weight — has become a useless, gangrenous piece of meat, and, to make matters worse, he has started hallucinating. (“Don’t lose it,” he implores himself, referring to his sanity, early in the film. Easier said than done.)
Only his macabre sense of humor (at one point, he improvises a radio talk show, playing both himself and the host, who is “interviewing” him about his harrowing ordeal), and his videocam (which he uses both to record messages to his loved ones and to revisit happier times that he has captured for posterity) keep him from losing his mind altogether.
Every so often, he looks up and sees a bird wheeling across the sky, representing freedom — the same way Boyle’s panoramic shots of the sun-scorched terrain, with only Ralston himself trudging across it, as insignificant as an insect, earlier served as a harbinger of the bitter loneliness to come.
Ralston is played by James Franco, an actor who is all crinkly eyes and wide, goofy grin when he smiles, but he has little to laugh about here. If his face changes expression at all, it morphs from merely pained to exquisitely tortured, from a plain old wince to something far more frightening. His entire performance is a tour-de-force — he has nothing to play off of but his memories, his own growing panic, and his constant failures, both large and small — and he does a splendid job. Even more impressively, Boyle does a fine and inventive job of directing him, considering that nearly all the action takes place in the most confining of spaces, and so much of it transpires without any dialogue, at all.
The “money shot”, which you’ve probably heard a lot about, happens quickly; if you blink, you’ll miss it. Ralston –convinced by now that help is NOT on the way — preps himself briefly, does what he has to do (it’s the one truly cringeworthy scene in the film), climbs out of his hellhole, and is rescued.
The problem with “127 Hours” — MY problem with it — is that until that moment, until he makes it back to the surface and is discovered by some other hikers passing by, I didn’t feel any EMOTIONAL attachment to the movie. Ralston’s plight (and all of this actually happened, back in 2003) is horrifying, to be sure, but until he sacrifices what he has to sacrifice in order to survive, until he finally stumbles, bloodied but alive, back into the sun, I felt a bit detached from it all; fascinated by all the detail, but somehow… unmoved.
So: is Franco worth the Best Actor Oscar he’s been nominated for? Perhaps.
Is the film itself deserving of its place among the ten Best Picture nominees?
And as for that hiking trip you’ve been thinking of going on…
This movie might make you reconsider.
FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien