“These stones never move, they’ve been here for centuries.”
2010. 94 min. Rated R.
While hiking through Blue John Canyon in Utah, climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) is caught by his forearm when the rock he’s standing on gives way and pinions him against the wall in a crevice.
I’m not much of a climber (but enojy a little rock-scrambling). I prefer company in the great outdoors. I’m sort of squeamish when it comes to the sight of blood. And yet, I was riverted to this tale about a cocky canyoneer who gets trapped for over 5 days and resorts to extreme measures to escape Based on Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 hours portrays true events (and hallucinated ones) from 2003.
Once stuck, Ralston tries everything: screaming for help, levering the rock, rigging up a rope and pulley. Nothing budges it, and his supplies run dangerously low. It’s cold at night in the canyon, and even during the day he only gets about 15 minutes of sunlight. Delirium sets in with the derth of food, lack of water, and shock: he has vivid dreams of escape, insane hallucinations of Scooby Doo, and an epic vision of his future offspring before the end of the film.
Things I love:
James Franco isn’t an exact look-alike, but there are some similarities, and it seems he conveyed Ralston well enough for the subject to give his stamp of approval by appearing at the end of the film. Franco is satisfyingly charming, intense, crazed, furious, and agonized by turns, and moves effortlessly back and forth from Ralston in the present at the start of the film to Ralston in his own memories as he examines pivotal moments in his life to Ralston caught in a canyon. It’s decent, convincing acting. I actually got thirsty, watching him ration his water, and gasped aloud when he knocked over his bottle, spilling a few precious milliliters.
In most cases, the book is better than the movie; in this case, the movie is equally as good, because of the attention to detail. In one scene in the film, Ralston takes a photo of an S-shaped piece of weathered wood stuck in a crevasse, and the photo appears in the book–I can only assume what’s shown on screen is Ralston’s photograph. Clothing, gear, and location all are so frighteningly accurate it must have been difficult for Ralston himself to watch this movie.
The editing was really interesting. In one scene, we get a shot of the interior of the tubing from his Camelback water reservoir that’s just amazing, and nicely contrasted when Ralston resorts to drinking his own urine in an effort to stay hydrated. The director uses a three-screen split near the beginning to capture Ralston playing around on his bike, and when he meets up with some ladies and shows them a rock slide that drops into a water-filled cavern, repetitive footage of the three new friends sliding and splashing has an almost snapshot-like quality, even though the scenes are full of motion–it’s like a video slideshow.
Ralston did a daily video diary during his entrapment, and director Danny Boyle worked that in really well; in one scene we watch Ralston watching himself on camera, while in another he can’t stand to look at himself, and watching the two images is odd. In another scene, delirious from lack of food and water, he pretends to interview himself on a morning news show. He’s all Guy Smiley, asking self-deprecating questions about how he ended up in this predicament. The camera focuses on his camcorder screen for his humble responses, giving the impression that we are the viewer watching him on screen at home. It’s a nifty device.
The music in this film is really kick-ass: a mix of grinding rock and mellower jam band-ish sounds. I know Ralston is a huge fan of Phish and the String Cheese Incident, and the music seems carefully chosen to reflect his taste as well as mood, and to convey tone: fun, urgency, pain.
SPOILER: highlight text below to read!
The sound effects are really cool, too. In the book, where Ralston writes about severing his arm (oh, come on, you all know he cuts his arm off! There is no way this is a spoiler, so don’t bother to send me nasty emails), he compares the bundle of nerves to a guitar string. In the film, Franco tweaks the nerve bundle just a little, testing to see how much it’s going to hurt, and a reverberating stringed instrument twang is akin to nails screeching on a chalkboard. It’s a powerful way to make the audience almost FEEL his pain by making us physically uncomfortable.
Let’s face it: I’m never going to go hiking alone in a desert canyon. But I don’t have to, because I feel like I’ve lived through it with Aron Ralston. And THAT is what makes this such an effective and memorable biopic.