THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Note: This review assumes the reader is familiar with the story of Aron Ralston, which has been told in the press, in Ralston's book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," and in publicity for this movie. If, by chance, you don't know his tale and don't want spoilers, you might want to just skip to the last paragraph.
We've all used the expression "I'd give my right arm to _____." Well, Aron Ralston really did give his right arm. He did so to free himself. Ralston, an avid outdoorsman, went hiking alone in the wilderness, where he fell down a crevasse and got his arm pinned by a boulder. Since he hadn't bothered to tell anyone where he was going, he knew that the odds of somebody coming to look for him were slim. Five days later, dehydrated and desperate, he chose to do whatever it took to survive, which meant cutting off his own arm.
James Franco plays Aron, and the early scenes show us a cocky young man, confident in his skills. Maybe too confident. While doing some biking and climbing, he meets two young women (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), whom he immediately gloms on to, impressing them with his knowledge of the area, including a secret underground spring that can only be accessed via slightly dangerous methods. After a few hours of frolic, Aron goes off on his merry way, which leads to his eventual predicament.
When he falls down the crevasse, the boulder crushes his hand, pinning it to the rock wall. Initially, Aron doesn't panic. He begins trying to chip away at the boulder with a utility knife. When that doesn't work, he tries to create a pulley system to lift the rock up just enough to ease his hand out. That doesn't work either, which is when the panic sets in. Aron records messages to his loved ones with the video camera he brought with him, all the while fighting hunger, thirst, claustrophobia, and an onslaught of hallucinations. After several days, the realization hits that he's going to die, alone, in the middle of nowhere, unless he finds a way out. He does.
Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) takes what could have been a grim story and turns it into something triumphant. 127 Hours is not a movie about a guy who cuts off his own arm; it's a movie about a guy who chooses to live. My initial instinct was one of horror, of the thought that I could never do what Aron Ralston did. In Boyle's hands, I walked away feeling the opposite. The strength of the film is that it so vividly portrays what Ralston went through that, when the moment comes, you understand perfectly why he took such drastic measures - and you realize that, under these same circumstances, you would do the same thing.
Boyle is, of course, one of our most visionary directors. Throughout 127 Hours, he manages to find inventive ways to visualize and dramatize Ralston's ordeal. For example, Boyle emphasizes Aron's desperate thirst by having him imagine a montage of cheesy soda ads, with happy people popping open bottles of Coca-Cola that have just been pulled from coolers of ice. Boyle also manages to maintain the weight of the situation without it ever becoming oppressive. There are moments of humor, as Aron tries to amuse himself during his long period of immobility. He even flashes occasionally to the outside world, to visions of his parents and an ex-girlfriend. Boyle additionally uses little touches to make the movie entertaining in spite of the seriousness of its topic. The Bill Withers song "Lovely Day" is used to great ironic effect, and there's a brief cameo from Scooby Doo. Trust me, it makes sense in context.
This is the best performance of James Franco's career. He's in every scene and has to run the emotional gamut. Aron initially remains a cool customer, believing he can wedge himself free. When this proves to be more difficult than expected, he wills himself to hold it together, then tries another plan. As one attempt after another fails to produce even a minor improvement, the panic arrives, followed by desperation as he realizes his loved ones may never know what happened to him. Finally, he decides that he doesn't want to die that way and will do whatever it takes to finally free himself. Franco hits every single note just right, making us fully understand how Aron has to go through all these different stages to mentally get to a point where he chooses survival at any cost.
The big scene itself has gained some infamy due to reports of people fainting at film festivals. I won't lie - it's intense. Necessarily graphic but never overly so, the scene is absolutely crucial to understanding Aron Ralston's journey. Without it, the film's power would be greatly diminished. There are some technicalities that you might not think of when you conceive of cutting off your own arm. Boyle shows us what they are, which only makes us respect what Ralston put himself through even more.
127 Hours is ultimately an inspiring experience. Visually creative, well-acted, and immensely immersive, it sends you out on a high, not on a low. This is a great tale of the human spirit and the desire to embrace life, as well as one of the best pictures of 2010.
( out of four)
127 Hours is rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.