I can see why this film draws comparisons to 2010’s Buried. Each tells the tale of a man trapped in a very confined space and follows them as they deal with their situations and their own mortality. Where Buried focuses more on the plight of the man in the moment (Ryan Reynolds in that film) 127 Hours examines how the man got there and what it will take for him to get out (James Franco in an astounding performance that would likely have won all of the awards this season if it weren’t for that pesky Colin Firth). It is this fundamental difference that makes 127 Hours a compelling and intriguing story told in a fascinating manner.
Most know the story of Aron Ralston. He was a weekend warrior who, while on a climbing/hiking/biking expedition, got trapped between a rock and another, larger rock. He’s stuck there for, well, 127 hours until he realizes that the only way he will live is if he cuts off his own arm. This true story precedes everybody’s moviegoing experience and it looms large over the film. Much like Titanic and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we know how this film ends. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) knows this and decides to focus instead on everything but that. There’s a point early in the film where Aron tries to cut into his arm with a dull knife. It hardly makes a scratch. Now we know that it will take a heck of a lot of doing to fully de-limb himself and while Ralston tries everything under the sun to escape we know that every second ticks closer to the inevitable unpleasantness. That’s good tension building. That’s good filmmaking.
Of course, that’s not the only good thing that Boyle does. His films have always had a kind of crazy kineticism that ensures the audience won’t get bored or tune out. His films demand your attention and this one is no different. Strangely, though I wished that Buried stuck closer to the coffin which imprisoned its protagonist, I was glad that we got plenty of flashbacks and hallucinations while Ralston was stuck in his gorge. In addition to allowing Boyle to work his movie magic we also got to know Aron a lot better than we might have had we stuck with him through the entirety of the film. We see his family and we see how he keeps them – along with the rest of the world – at arms length. His predicament allows for a lot of self reflection and in a touching and fresh and real scene he apologizes for being a huge jerk. It’s not often that a movie has enough guts to condemn its own hero. Once Ralston realizes that he is the only person that got him into the situation he knows that he’s the only one to get him out of it. And then comes the arm amputation.
The big scene comes at the very end of the film, as you would expect. It’s an intense scene to be sure and, much like Tarantino’s deft use of sound and camera trickery in Reservoir Dogs‘ ear cutting scene, Boyle shows a lot with a little. That’s not to say that there isn’t blood and gore. It’s all there, but Boyle’s energy carries us through and saves us some grossness by cutting or moving away just as the worst bits happen. It’s the Jaws rule, we always imagine worse than they can show us. After Aron sets himself free there is a moment to breathe then the movie rushes back into top gear, this time with the greatest joy and zest for life that only one who has been trapped for more than five days and then escapes truly knows. The final ten or fifteen minutes of this movie are practically perfect in the ride they take the audience on. It’s a true examination of the human spirit, one that understands the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the self-centered and codependent nature of man. It’s a film that, by showing the truly horrible things we must sometimes do, encourages us to be the best we can be.