I'm guessing there is a small segment of the mountaineering and adventure community that resents the fame and fortune bestowed upon Aron Ralston, especially since that notoriety exists because the 28-year-old avid outdoorsman made the very novice mistake of forgetting to tell anyone where he was going when he went out to explore Utah's Canyonlands in April 2003.
But think about it: How many times have you done the exact same thing?
Ralston, who was in fact far more experienced than the average weekend warrior when he embarked on his solo expedition in one of America's most remote areas, paid a steep price for his foolery. But his gripping story captivated millions, earning him a seat on David Letterman's couch, a lucrative book deal and now a part-time career as motivational speaker, for which he is paid $25,000 per pop. And now an Oscar-winning director has made a film about his five-day ordeal in the high desert of southern Utah.
While familiar with Ralston's story, I was nonetheless surprised when I first heard it was to be adapted into a film. The challenges of making 127 Hours are pretty obvious. Namely, this is a one-character story, and that character spends 80 percent of the film in one setting. Turning Ralston's tale into a stage production sounds hard enough. You could argue that Danny Boyle—who picked up his Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire two years ago—faced far greater challenges than Robert Zemeckis did in 2000 when he directed Tom Hanks in the wonderful Cast Away, the film with which 127 Hours will almost surely be compared. At least Hanks could move around on his tropical island. Here, playing the energetic and affable Ralston, James Franco is literally stuck in one place.
Somehow, it all works. Not only does it work, it mesmerizes the audience with perfect pacing, effective quick cuts and a bounding energy that results in a legitimately moving and powerful film. It's impossible to look away from what feels like a gripping documentary, and that includes the scene where—well, you know the scene I'm talking about.
Or perhaps you don't. The title, 127 Hours, refers to the time Ralston spent with his right arm pinned beneath a boulder following an accident while exploring Blue John Canyon near Moab. With very little food and less than a full Nalgene of water to sustain him, and nothing more than some climbing rope, a head lamp, an empty Camelbak and a $15 utility knife to figure out an exit strategy, the situation is a dire one. And of course not a single person in the world knows where he is.
Boyle plays up the what-ifs throughout the film: Franco flashes back more than once to ignoring a phone call from his mother shortly before leaving, as well as his vague answer when a co-worker asks Ralston where he'll be heading for the weekend. Franco's eyes and facial expressions tell a story of regret and understanding as he comes to terms with the seriousness of the situation. And though Franco never actually utters the words as the days slowly drag on, we are constantly aware of the only possible solution to his predicament. And that knife is already bent and dull.
Franco is fantastic throughout the film and deserves his Oscar nomination, but he is perhaps at his best when saying nothing at all. He manages to make us feel trapped in that desolate canyon with him, along for a painful ride as it approaches an even more painful resolution.
From a filmmaking perspective, the greatest stroke of luck in telling this story may be that Ralston was actually traveling with a camcorder when the accident occurred. This gives Franco his only speaking partner for five days and nights as he records a video journal, documenting everything from his hallucinations, to drinking his own urine, to saying his goodbyes to family members. Boyle and Franco are apparently two of a very small group outside of Ralston's family to have actually watched the real video diary, which probably accounts for the emotional gut punch of these scenes that transfers to the big screen. It's nice to know Boyle didn't have to take creative license and interject a camera when there was none. As a device to increase the dialogue, it works far better than, say, Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away.
Danny Boyle has yet to make a bad film, and while Slumdog Millionaire is actually my least favorite of his movies, there is an energy to 127 Hours that feels very similar to his Indian fairytale. But here he manages to harness that energy more effectively, often integrating the triple-split screen that's become his trademark of sorts with another brilliant soundtrack by A.R. Rahman. The end of 127 Hours feels like the end of an epic journey, when in fact you basically never left the boulder—and the man determined to escape its crushing weight.
127 Hours continues at the Carmike 10.