film 5 of 6

127 Hours

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

I bet Mr. Boyle was partly motivated by a desire to wow us with his usual hyperkinetic mumbo jumbo, applied to this perverse or even impossible property. This kind of thing can be really annoying, partly because it’s a motivation that basically gets the ultimate reason for art or even plain conversation—only connect! (E.M. Forster, 1910)—wrong, or at least backwards. Isn’t there enough narcisissm and self-importance/self-delusion in the world?

Or are self-importance and self-delusion precisely what cause people like me to proclaim the ultimate reason for art and plain conversation? I forget! I guess we could remember that gleefully taking on tough things is exactly what brought us Rope (an interesting and worthwhile failure) and Lifeboat (a moving portrait of privation that leads to a kind of triumphant apotheosis), and maybe even Hitchcock himself. Let alone all of science and technology! We might remind ourselves that show-offs, especially the ones who actually have something to show off, should occasionally be encouraged to connect in the way that they see fit. Also, we shouldn’t make assumptions all the time.

Still, there is definitely ostentatious display here, and certainly the gruesomeness that you would next expect. But you might not expect the thing that emerges most abundantly from Boyle’s concoction, which is gravity, and even reverence. Speaking in the abstract these things are a natural consequence of responding respectfully to what happened to Ralston, and to how Ralston himself responded. It’s the right response to anyone’s Calvary, whether it’s jaw-dropping like this one, or the more usual quiet desperation. As is general with Boyle’s films, there’s joy in the utilization of the medium. But in this instance his precociousness is always appropriately and substantially paired with something bigger.

Craft, for instance. As James Franco’s Aron Ralston runs through the opening credits on the unknowing way to his extremity, we have some appropriate exposition. Zooming and zipping, which is what the cameras and lenses are doing, aptly represents this character’s methods and motivations. He’s trying to get away from the grind, and he’s become an estimable expert at doing so, but it may be a problem that he zooms and zips through nature too. The interlude with the hikers is bright and youthful and, as the kids might say, sexy. This may be a litmus test: depending on viewer disposition you could criticize their frivolousness, or realize how, since we’re always on the brink of something, every innocuous thing might be surpassingly important.

The title of the film, and our knowledge of the subject sure combine to create suspense out of nearly nothing. The actual accident is pretty amazingly assembled. After that, there’s a whole ton of movie left! Let’s not rehearse the stations of this particular cross, but it’s quite admirable, quite amazing even how the cinematic razzle dazzle always insinuates or resonates itself into real substance. On a practical level, the potential limitations of the single actor in the single setting are quite easily surmounted by the fact that 127 Hours turns into a more circumscribed version of Robinson Crusoe. That means that dialogue and character conflict are quite adequately replaced by what we might call a MacGyver (My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, etc.) component. This particular situation is obviously quite dramatically enhanced, but it’s still basically a drama of the everyday, of chores and tasks and the work that dignifies and saves.

Returning to the idea of craft, and certainly of filmic tradition, we also have here a remarkably successful working out of Sergei Eisenstein’s notion of inner speech (“Film Form: New Problems,” in Film Form [1949]). This is a deep, visualized, rhythmic kind of cinematic subjectivity, bringing the internal outside, making audible the silent speech of the soul. This next idea might seem shocking, if you want to key overly on previous Boyle films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (though in these there are intimations…). The burden of this inner speech is aptly and absolutely that of Everyman. Ralston/Franco’s various projects are beautifully and clearly communicated, but they’re definitely not all related to his physical self-preservation. In the end 127 Hours is a soul’s accounting, a pilgrim’s progress, a purging and purifying. Anonymous and John Bunyan are properly referenced, worthily evoked here; it’s really stirring to see how this amphetamine assembly turns into something sacred.

Ralston/Franco strategizes, he tries to free himself, he rests and thinks, he approaches his own death and in the end, regardless of what that end was going to be, becomes a better person. (The things about the women in his life are particularly lovely in their simultaneous frankness and chivalry.) It’s almost always a stretch when talking about movies to say that we have become better people by watching them, but the modeling components of Boyle’s film, and the reforming possibilities for the willing viewer, are very, very considerable. A vision of his own unborn son!

That is some amputation! Could that “sproing!” sound be a bit nauseatingly gratuitous? Probably, but by this point there are reasons to forgive them.

At this point in the movie the physical and the spiritual, the fact and the metaphor are one. We could compare 127 Hours to Robert Bresson’s historic, enormous A Man Escaped (1956) and both films would come out well in the comparison. Ralston/Franco’s last descent through the canyons is heart stopping in the suspenseful sense, and heart-rending in a spiritual one. The expressionism—we see what he feels—continues, and becomes very moving when he finally sees and catches up with someone, when all this subjectivity, extremity, purification re-enters the public sphere. Can he maintain this advancement? Will he survive? Though only dimly apprehended—the guy is dying, after all—the empathetic horror of his unknown friends is most moving for precisely this reason. Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

The documentary epilogue is modest, quiet, overwhelming. There is Aron Rolston. And there is Aron Rolston’s family.