The deep strata of the human spirit
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 12, 2010
"127 Hours" tells the true story of Aron Ralston, a climber who in 2003 became trapped in a slot canyon in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, his right arm pinned under a falling boulder. Most of the buzz about the movie, which stars James Franco as Ralston, centers on the film's climax, when Ralston breaks and then amputates his own arm in order to escape certain death.
Early reports of audience members passing out notwithstanding, that harrowing event actually accounts for a very brief, albeit jarringly realistic, episode in "127 Hours." And although Ralston's act of desperation is admittedly difficult to watch, viewers who might avoid the film out of squeamishness would be depriving themselves of one of the year's most exhilarating cinematic experiences.
Having directed "Slumdog Millionaire" and now this, British filmmaker Danny Boyle has solidified his stature as an artist possessed of a singular gift for aestheticizing misery. With a nervy, vivid visual style and a commitment to humanism at its most life-affirming, Boyle makes the unbearable not just endurable, but beautiful.
He's helped enormously in this endeavor by Franco, who as Ralston embodies the intrepid outdoorsman's exuberance and charm, but also his darker flip side of isolation and arrogance. When Ralston sets out for Utah's Blue John Canyon on a pristine April day, he's told no one where he's going; his belief in his own physical and mental superiority makes him feel above the usual safety rules. That exceptionalism will prove pivotal once he's trapped in a narrow sandstone crevice for five days.
But first, "127 Hours" offers viewers a glimpse of what lures Ralston to the desert in the first place: in a wildly kinetic montage of split-screens, canted camera angles and giddy jump cuts, Boyle captures the adrenaline rushes and peak experiences that prove so addictive to Ralston and his fellow hikers and climbers. When he meets two cute fellow travelers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) on the trail, he leads them to a sublime underwater pool where they splash and dive like sleek otters, ecstatic with their own ruddy good health and a benevolent natural world of near limitless scope and seductive pleasures.
As a portrait of youthful recklessness amidst the grandeur of indifferent nature, "127 Hours" may remind some viewers of Sean Penn's magnificent "Into the Wild," about a similarly brash young man on his own physically extreme journey. Like that earlier film, Ralston's story plays like a 21st century extension of the American transcendentalist tradition, where enlightenment and spiritual communion mesh so poetically with the rugged landscape of the country's frontier. In Ralston's case, mysticism arrives only after he's brought his mechanical engineer's ingenuity to bear on his predicament (to no avail). Once dehydration and delusion kick in, his flashbacks and visions take on an increasingly hallucinatory quality, with "127 Hours" taking on a commensurate magical-realist visual style.
As the character who virtually begins and ends his journey as two different men, Franco delivers the performance of a still-promising career. Starting with the sublime TV show "Freaks and Geeks" through "Milk" and now "127 Hours," Franco has proved his bona fides as an actor whose gifts run deeper than mere boyish charisma (although he possesses that in abundance). He carries this film with the same life force and complex emotions that animate Ralston himself, as he first tries to prevent and then make peace with and finally take charge of his fate.
Oddly enough, as a young man on a search for self-actualization, Ralston has more than a little in common with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whom Franco plays in "Howl," and who did his own part for advancing transcendentalist literary values. As elemental as Ralston's ordeal is, and as excruciatingly visceral as Boyle makes it, ultimately "127 Hours" isn't about the physical struggle for life as much as psychic struggle to find meaningful connection within it. It's a movie worth seeing, even when it's barely watchable.
Contains profanity and some disturbing violent content and bloody images.