Sometimes a film comes along that gnaws at you. It gnaws at you because even though the premise sounds unappealing - man gets stuck by a rock for five days and has to cut his arm off to get free - it's laden with bait to tempt you - not just narratively, but filmically. How does he get trapped? Why can't he just move the rock? What does he do for 5 days? How are they going to keep the audience interested for '5 days'? What leads to him having to cut his own arm off? How does he cut his own arm off? Will it make me faint? How does he escape and get help? What happens next? Do I even like James Franco? - questions like this can drive you to the brink, and then after being critically applauded pretty much everywhere, it's the thing to be seen. Hence a very early 2011 trip to see the animal in question: 127 Hours.
Immediately it's a Danny Boyle film - trendy, modern, slick, perfectly chosen energetic soundtrack (I still have "Never Hear Surf Music Again" in my head a week after). I disliked Slumdog Millionaire to the point where it was putting me off Danny Boyle as well - but I must remember his earlier works, and what a genius he is. I loved the beginning, how very little needed to be said to capture the life and personality of Aron Ralston: restless, impulsive, distracted to the point of blindness by his own activities, irresponsible, carefree... he chooses to spend a Friday night alone, driving out to the desert with just his music and his video camera. And he is happy. Obviously you can't have him stuck down a hole for the entirety of the film, so there's an interesting detour with two female hikers and the three of them plunging into a rock pool for several hours (this leads to the funniest bit in the film: James Franco removing his sunglasses, and then pointing at his face saying "I can't take this off.")
I was surprised at how tense I was feeling watching this first 20 minutes - this impending feeling of doom that keeps creeping closer and closer. Though you know it's coming, it's shot in such a casual way to draw attention to the fact that he doesn't know it's coming - he's navigating the rocks, and then suddenly he's falling, a boulder coming loose and trapping his arm in the tight crevice where he's landed. Even then it's more of an inconvenience - this might take rolling up the sleeves to shift this bloody thing - but his bravo and his optimism are soon snuffed out. The rock isn't moving, and he has nothing to help him.
This is where the genius of Danny Boyle comes into play: mixing up the style and tone of the film with effortless success. Aron opens his backpack and methodically takes every item out and then stares at them, urging himself to "think". He starts to reminisce about his childhood, expressed through flashbacks. He takes out his video camera and starts to document what's happening. He hallucinates a thunderstorm, and fantasises over sugary pop drinks. He has recurring thoughts about his ex-girlfriend whom he couldn't commit to because adventuring is more important. And my favourite moment - he holds a TV chat show on his video camera where he plays the host, and himself, being interviewed as he confronts death in the maze of the Blue Canyon - "this rock has been waiting for me my whole life."
It very quickly becomes very philosophical, but the variety, humour and brilliant acting of James Franco means it's not thrust upon you awkwardly: go on, start thinking about death and life and reasons to live. It's all very smoothly done, it's very believable - it's not as confining as a film like Buried or Open Water where the sense of dread pulsates throughout until you just want to get out, get out, get out. Perhaps it's because you know the ending, you know he's going to make it - so what makes it interesting is how he gets there, and that whatever it is works. The breakthrough moment appears to be when Aron has a premonition in his extreme dehydration of his son - a son that has not yet been born, but whom he can pass on all the things he has learned over the years and his desire to live life to the full.
The arm cutting scene is more grotesque for the sounds it makes than the actual blood, bones and tendons (although I have to admit I didn't open my eyes all the way through it - I can't even watch Casualty for God's sake). The 'popping' sound and the strain on his face as he breaks his arm - nnneurghhhh it made the whole audience gasp. And even after he pulls free, and then staggers backwards in disbelief that his arm is off and that he's free to move - he takes out his camera and takes a photo. He may be a changed man, but he's still essentially the same madman!
Then it's just like taking a drug, and the boost and uplift you feel at the end when he spots some walkers and calls out to them for help - I was crying happy tears because you're just so relieved. You've come to really like and admire this man, and you want him to get somewhere safe and get treatment. The shots of the real life Aron Ralston with his wife and son at the end just intensify the emotions.
If Slumdog Millionaire was supposed to be a 'feel good' film then 127 Hours is a catharsis, and a lot more good for you. It's an astonishingly brilliant film, and I'm currently in the process of urging everyone to go and see it, no matter the snapping and popping of human flesh and bone! It's a triumph in every sense: for the cinema, and for the real life man who overcame this.