127 Hours
'Ordeal' doesn’t even cover what Ralston went through. 'Heroic' is an inadequate adjective. 'Superhuman' is nearly there.

Plot summary

Aron Ralston is in the middle of a routine climb when a boulder suddenly becomes dislodged just above him crashing onto his arm and leaving him trapped in solitude inside a dark, isolated canyon.

For those who have heard the true story of the five days Aron Ralston spent with his arm trapped under a boulder down a canyon in Utah, watching 127 Hours is a little like watching Titanic. You’re waiting for that iceberg to hit, or in this case, that arm to come off.

‘Ordeal’ doesn’t even cover what Ralston went through. ‘Heroic’ is an inadequate adjective. ‘Superhuman’ is nearly there.

Yet, although the story is mind-blowing and incomprehensible, I had reservations about it being made into a film. Done poorly, a film about one man with his arm stuck under a boulder for five days could be almost as tough as going through it yourself (I kid!).

But I’d obviously forgotten about James Franco and Danny Boyle. Put frankly, they’ve made something pretty special. It’s vivid yet hallucinatory. Super-real yet feverish. It’s a depiction of one man coming to terms with death. Then beating it.

The opening of the film is a vibrant, colourful, kinetic, cut screen montage of modern life. Bustling metropolises and hordes of people moving in unison are cut with our hero grabbing his gear and leaving. It’s a Friday night but he’s getting out of the city.

He is clearly a man of action. Without telling anyone where he is going he drives out towards canyon-land, sleeps in his truck and is up at the break of dawn cycling the 17 (.3) miles towards the canyons. It’ll take four hours. He’ll “shave 45 minutes off that”. He’s a slightly frenzied adrenaline junkie who flies over the handlebars of his bike and laughs it off by taking a snap shot of himself sprawled out on the sand.

Along the way he meets two girls and, taking them under his wing, guides them through a dangerous crevice. He briefly tells them that everything will be ok before dropping his legs and plummeting into the abyss, landing in a hidden pool.  You start to love this guy. He’s that guy you want to be. He’s out there living life, tasking risks, going on adventures. What have you done today?

He leaves them as abruptly as he finds them and continues on his frenetic path through the canyons.

It is whilst climbing down Blue John Canyon that he pulls loose a boulder, tumbling with it down the crevice and landing shocked and in agony; the boulder wedged tight between the rock walls, his right arm crushed between them both.

Boyle brilliantly shows just how buggered he is with a huge zoom out to a view that shows the whole deserted canyon. Not only is he in the middle of nowhere, he’s down a crack in the middle of nowhere.

From here it could be a simple soundtrack-less video of Aron attempting to find a way out. It wouldn’t of even been a bad idea to just see him through the video camera he sets up on the boulder (which becomes a shelf for all his things).

Instead Boyle entertains.  Whilst we are seeing him go through his initial panic, attempting to move the boulder and him documenting his plight on film, Boyle gets inventive. We have shots from inside his water bottle as he’s drinking; we witness the internal machinations of his digital camera whenever he rewinds it. They give the film a quick pace. As does the soundtrack; we watch Aron wake up on day three, dehydrated and losing it slightly, to Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’. It somehow works.

Franco supplements the entertainment immensely. He’s on his own and talking to himself yet he’s charismatic and funny. After urinating in his camel bag he tells the camera he’ll let it settle for a bit so it’ll taste like chilled Sauvignon Blanc. When he drinks it he says, totally deadpan, that it tastes like a bag of piss.

All the entertainment and clever touches, however, do not lessen the impact of what he’s going through. We are cleverly reminded of how alone and isolated he is through planes passing overhead and, whereas the outside world is shiny and techni-colour, Boyle purposefully made the grading of the film dryer, so you almost feel thirsty watching it. And then there’s Franco himself who makes an amazing transition into the depths of despair.

The most remarkable thing about the film is that so much is created from such a simple setting. The real life Aron read every draft of the script and revealed exactly what he went through; who and what he thought about. And you can tell. We filter through memories of his ex-girlfriend (Clemence Poésy) and thoughts of his family, and the longer time goes on the more hallucinatory they become.

You get right inside a dying person’s mind and you totally cant help but relate to his feelings whilst totally not being able to grasp the fact that this man’s life is over simply because he cant free his arm. This constantly moving, frantic life has been completely humbled by a piece of rock.

Then he snaps out of it. And then he snaps something else. And has a play with his multi-tool knife and pliers. It is grim. It is gruesome. It has to be. The fact that someone actually did this is beyond belief. Prepare to gasp.

If ‘ordeal’ isn’t the word for what happened, ‘euphoria’ certainly is the word when it ends.

Ultimately I left the cinema in a bit of a state. It was elation. It was disbelief. The man’s story is shocking alone, but with Boyle creating an expansive, visceral experience around it and Franco bouncing from funny to serious, crazy to sombre and putting in the performance of his career so far, I couldn’t get enough.