127 Hours: Dehydration, Hallucination, Hopelessness and Eventually Chopping Your Own Arm Off Has Never Felt This Good!!

Danny Boyle, better known for directing Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, has taken the traumatic tale of Aron Ralston (James Franco) and turned it into an amazing and engaging story set to completely captivate his audiences.

Premise: Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who becomes trapped under a boulder while canyoneering alone and resorts to desperate measures in order to survive. Result: A film about misery and hope, both shocks and inspires, and accomplishes what it was meant to accomplish.

In case anyone is wondering, yes, Ralston does saw his own arm off with a dull blade and ,yes, we see it all play out in horrific detail.  This is the reality with which all audiences are confronted as they walk into the theater, unless they have been dragged there by some sadistic loved one and left blissfully ignorant.

 The audience is lulled into a false sense of comfort as the film begins.  Boyle sets up the tension through a bizarre but adorable delivery of the film’s hero, Ralston, as portrayed by the fantastic James Franco.  Franco instantly delivers a nuanced performance, capturing the reality of the character, the quirks, the acute angles that made him more than a character on screen but a human, a person we can’t help but understand.

Franco works his geek-ridden charm through his innocent flirtations with two hapless girls he coincidentally stumbles upon in the canyons.  Kristi ( Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) are mainly catalysts for Franco to further explore the character in a quasi-social setting, considering the rest of the film is such extreme isolation.  Their most important role is to set the stage for deadly change: after they are lost, Ralston offers to help them on their way, thus setting Ralston off track from his original intention. Eventually Ralston leaves the girls, who invite him to a party the next evening, chilling the audience who is keenly aware of his inevitable absence.   

It is not long after that the film takes its horrific turn. In a split moment, Ralston has fallen down a shallow ravine and his hand is crushed underneath a suspended boulder.  It takes only a few moments for the audience to snap to the terrifying realization that the torture at that moment is at hour 1…with over 126 to go.  That initial sensation is nauseating even before anything has happened, like the moment in the Dentist’s Chair before a lengthy root canal.

It is this second and essential half of the film that illustrates the true brilliance that Boyle and Franco bring.  Boyle sets up scene after scene with mastery, never repeating the same image or event, making even crawling ants seem horrifically menacing.  It is here where raw emotion and terror become palpable; we can instantly sympathize with the nightmare of being trapped, alone in the middle of a stone forest where no one is likely to come.  We know that behind every gasp, every glance at his dwindling water, every creeping shadow rests an impenetrable despair. 

The two un-credited characters Boyle introduces throughout this descent into madness are brilliantly opposite: Ralston’s camcorder and Ralston’s hallucinations.  The first allows Ralston to distract his mind by recording messages to family or journaling his ordeal allowing Franco to stunningly transform this character on screen into someone we don’t only root for, but hope for and pray for.  The second is Ralston’s graphic hallucinations, as fluorescent, choppy pulses of scenes from Ralston’s memory blended with desire and eerie premonition. Franco plays every moment with veteran brilliance and as the anguish becomes undeniable and hope flickers away like sunlight, the audience is left emotionally arrested by the sight before them.

Boyle builds to the inevitable breakdown: while slight victories Ralston gains over his rocky tomb such as stabilizing himself on a stone so that he can sleep standing offer respite from the misery, scenes where Ralston consumes his own urine send waves of nausea through the audience.  But no more so than the unavoidable climax.

As Ralston, possibly overcome by dementia or dehydration or desperation as we cannot know it, begins to sever his own hand, visceral responses from almost everyone in the audience pulsed violently through the audience as whole segments of the theater turned away.  Make no mistake – this was not a swift, singular motion, nor was he so far gone as to experience a numbing bliss; Franco delivers the shrieks and the moans of certain agony with such truth as to leave the audience fixated, even as their eyes are closed.  Boyle manages, however wretched the act, to make art; unlike films like Hostel and Saw, where mutilation and torment are the sadistic object, Boyle gives us just enough to push us, but never push us over the edge.

When Ralston frees himself and makes his journey to find help as a beaten, barely living shell of a person, we rise subconsciously from our seats, willing him to safety.  And when he is finally pulled away, we collectively sigh relief, expelling the terror that has managed to leap from the screen into us.  Boyle has told us a story that is already unforgettable, but in a way to ensure we can never forget.

Rating: 9 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak that someone else is paying for and where you don’t have to put out

One Response to “127 Hours: Dehydration, Hallucination, Hopelessness and Eventually Chopping Your Own Arm Off Has Never Felt This Good!!”

  1. Thanks for the review.. I cannot wait to catch this when its out on DVD. Netflix queue is already ready

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