Incredible true story of how one young man cut off his arm to save his life is not for the faint of heart
BY NANCY R. MANDELL
With the memory of writer-director Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" still fairly fresh, it's easy to forget that this is the same filmmaker responsible for tackling more gruesome subjects like heroin addiction in "Trainspotting" and flesh-eating zombies in "28 Days Later." Despite the overwhelming filth and poverty of its Mumbai setting, "Slumdog" was essentially a fairy tale — something out of the Arabian Nights — whose swashbuckling hero wielded intellect and a fantastic memory to win the beautiful princess of his dreams.
In his latest film, "127 Hours," Boyle (with "Slumdog" co-writer Simon Beaufoy) returns to a nightmarish scenario, but this time the nightmare is neither fiction nor science-fiction: It is the harrowing true story of the 127 hours mountain climber Aron Ralston spent in Utah's isolated Blue John Canyon, his right arm trapped at the wrist by an immovable boulder that dislodges, in one fateful instant, from whatever natural tension had been holding it in place. With scant food, little water, and only the ironic echo of his own cries for help, Aron eventually comes to terms with his only option: that the alternative to certain death is to free himself by cutting his arm off at the elbow. And since his only tool is the dull pocket knife that was a Christmas stocking stuffer from his mother, the process is nearly as bloodily agonizing to watch as it must have been to endure. This is not a movie for the squeamish, and I assure you that no number of hours in the "ER" or spent with the "CSIs" of Las Vegas, Miami or New York can prepare you.
For in fact, this is an experience shared only by Ralston — in a remarkable acting and physical performance by James Franco — and the viewer...not the audience, mind you, but you, the individual viewer. The script, based on Ralston's best-selling memoir "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," is barely a factor. Aron can't help but talk to himself, of course, and there are mostly wordless flashbacks to scenes with the family he unabashedly loves and the girl (Clémence Poésy) he shamelessly rejected. But Boyle manages to provide uncanny momentum to this basically motionless five-day ordeal through ingenious camera work that relies on two cinematographers — "Slumdog's" Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak of "28 Days" — using combinations of traditional, digital and still cameras. The result is a stylistic technique that pits the physical tension of Aron's entrapment against a predominantly static enemy --- the canyon's natural setting of exquisite beauty and inherent menace.
For contrast, Boyle opens the film with scenes of the congested, tumultuous city life Aron is leaving behind as he prepares for a weekend of biking, hiking and climbing through the most remote section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Clearly, it is not the 27-year-old engineer's first solo foray into this wilderness, and with what is obviously innate self-reliance and adventurousness, he sees no need to tell friends or family where he is going. (An epilogue informs us that Ralston, who goes on to a future of similar excursions, never makes that mistake again.)
With music blaring through his headset, Aron speeds carelessly through the deserted landscape, eventually hopping, skipping and jumping over the rocky terrain. His solitude is briefly interrupted by two pretty young women (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), who have lost their way en route to a landmark Aron knows well. Clowning around, he offers to guide them, surprising them with a hidden water hole that bonds the threesome in an exuberantly shared adventure. But the companionship is short-lived when they go their separate ways, with Aron making a vague promise to meet up with them the following evening for a party at their motel. :"I don't think we figured in his day at all," they decide afterwards. In truth, scenes with them captured by his video camera get him through some of the darkest moments of his ordeal.
For the entire 127 hours, that video camera is Aron's only companion, occasionally even providing some comic relief. His only other distraction is a series of flashbacks to what appears to be a warm family life, with Kate Burton and Treat Williams rather wasted in flimsy roles as his mom and dad. There's also a hint of a future in his hallucinogenic vision of a young child.
But for the most part "127 Hours" takes place in an unsparing present reduced to the barest elements of survival. It's not an easy film to watch, but if you think you can handle it, it's not one to miss.
"127 Hours" opened Friday, Nov. 5, in Manhattan at AMC Loew's Lincoln Square and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.