Directed by Danny Boyle    
Starring James Franco | 2010 | 94 minutes

In his latest film, 127 Hours, British director Danny Boyle tells the true story of a self-sufficient canyoneer who finds himself caught, literally, between a rock and hard place (the name of his book, on which the film is based), and faced with a terrible decision.

On April 26, 2003, Aron Ralston, an independent guy without a care in the world, set out canyoneering in the Utah desert, alone, as he usually did, without telling anyone where he was going. Unexpectedly he falls and finds himself pinned to the bottom of a canyon with a boulder crushing his arm. With no other alternative, he is left with an agonizing decision: amputate his own arm with a blunt knife to escape or die alone in the desert, miles from the people he loves?

Ralston is portrayed by James Franco, who gives a powerful performance, one which challenged him to reveal human vulnerability and to show how Aron was forced to realize that dependence on others is not a weakness but humility. “When I first met Aron, he asked me why I wanted to play him,” Franco recalled. “One thing I said was, “I think it’s very interesting to see a human taken out of his environment and really forced to see what he’s made of. And Aron didn’t like that answer. He said, ‘Well, thank you, but actually one of the things that really drove me was my connection to my loved ones.’”

Describing his ordeal Ralston has said, “It’s kind of like being stuck in the bottom of a well, essentially, but in the middle of a very remote wilderness. I think the typical, you know, human response is of empathy,” Ralston said. “I think it was the act of the amputation that grabs us all, like, ‘Wow, I mean, he did that? That’s crazy!’ But really it was a very simple thing, like, ‘I’m gonna do what I have to do in order to get back to the people who are important to me.”

What makes 127 Hours unique, in cinematic terms, is that the production team had, as part of their source material, a video diary that Ralston made of his ordeal. Not only did this allow Boyle to take a uniquely objective look at Aron’s experience, but it also gives the audience a privileged insight into one man’s struggle to come to terms with his own helplessness, being as he was, completely on his own. Initially we see Aron talk to the camera as a means to pass the time more than anything else, recording only small details about his water supply. But as the minutes and the hours drag by, he turns to the camera for comfort, eventually confiding in it his sorrow at having neglected his family and those who have loved him. He comes to see, in his silence and solitude, the wrong he has done.

Aron is “a genuine kid”, says Boyle, “which comes across in the message he records to his parents when he thinks he won’t escape: ‘Mom and Dad, I want to take this opportunity to tell you how I haven’t valued you in my heart like I know I could and should have done.’ He’s taken them for granted, and it’s as simple as that”.

By keeping the camera up close and personal, Boyle gets an intimate angle on Aron’s canyon confession and creates a sense of building tension throughout. As the film reaches its dramatic climax, Aron’s guilt and the prospect of his death weigh heavily upon him (that and the ton’s worth of boulder crushing his arm), causing him at one point to scratch his own epithet on the wall. Boyle also uses a series of well placed flashbacks which, combined with some hallucinatory cinematography, give us a window onto Aron’s conscience as he remembers the scenes of his past, revealing the decisions which have lead him here. 

The story clearly reflects the Christian and very human themes of contrition and penance that run through it. When asked about the contemplative mood of some of the film’s flashback sequences, Boyle has said, “I’m not religious but I am spiritual, and I think there are forces at work that are very difficult for the rational mind to absolutely pin down, and sometimes they work in a film like this”.

When asked what the film is about Boyle said: “It’s about people. People are what begin and end the film. What pulls him back and protects him is not incredible courage. He had that courage before he went in, but it’s actually that bond with other people he had which protects him in the end, and that’s why I made the film”.

127 Hours is another reason why Danny Boyle should keep doing what he does. Even if the film is not his best to date, it certainly re-affirms the spirit of hope and optimism that runs through his work and helps to make his films more enjoyable than they might otherwise be, given their challenging themes and sometimes graphic content. I’m pleased to say that 127 Hours has a happy ending, though it might be more appropriately called a happy beginning. What makes it truly satisfying though, is that we get to watch Aron earn it. And he really does.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...