Review: 127 Hours
If I have one major complaint about the current state of art, be it film or literature or music, it is that the affirmation of life is no longer consistently in the forefront. Cynicism and a certain postmodern despair have overtaken many circles of the serious arts , and consumed the attention of many supremely talented people who might have something uplifting to say, something that can keep us going no matter how bad or hopeless things may seem.
Danny Boyle is not one of the cynics. He touches on the dark as well as well as just about any filmmaker out there, but he creates his films with an eye toward the light. He drug us through the awful streets of Slumdog Millionaire and yet gave us hope that perhaps love can indeed save us. He took us through an apocalypse of our own making in 28 Days Later and still arrived at the idea that out resilience and passion for life and each other may be able to surpass the worst aspects of our nature. He is one of the most eclectic major directors in the world, and yet as he’s matured, his outlook has brightened, not dimmed.
His trend continues with 127 Hours, a remarkable visual poem to the desire not only to survive, but to live with and for those we love. In 2003, Aaron Ralston took a recreational trek into the wilds of Utah completely alone, and despite all his experience, all his knowledge of the land and all his physical aptitude, he found himself a victim of cosmic chance. He fell just the right way, at just the right speed, at just the right angle, so that a large rock pinned his arm and trapped him in a crevice. No one to hear him. No one to save him. He had to save himself. The story is world-famous, and most likely already know what Ralston did to free himself from his awful predicament, but that doesn’t matter when watching this film. Boyle assumes our knowledge, and uses our anticipation and anxiety about what’s to come to create a mezmerizing portrait of forced enlightenment, of a brash, overconfident young man coming to terms not only with his situation but also himself, and making the decision to keep fighting for life AND to live it a different way.
Not all of Boyle’s choices are successful, as some of his visual eccentricities threaten to overwhelm the dramatics of the story at certain points. But he keep his story track. This is a story about an intensely personal journey taking place within a very small physical space, and Boyle’s flourishes are often both our and the character’s only gateway to the outside when things get really, really bleak. On the dramatic level, he hands the reigns to James Franco, who returns the favor with a career-best performance that may end up nabbing him an Oscar. We are stuck there with Ralston in every way. He bask in his initial confidence, we feel his despair when things go wrong, and we live through his reflections and contemplations of all the things in his life that led him to that place. Even the much talked about climax scene, which involves the removal of a certain limb via a dull pocket knife, is necessary to these same ends. While we as the audience can never know the immeasurable pain Ralston went through when he decided to do the only thing that would allow him to leave that crevice, the graphic and unflinching depiction of his experience keeps us with him and within him. And that scene, tortuous as it is, is not in service of misery, but rather works to bring us near the same euphoria Ralston experiences once it’s over, once he leaves that crack in the earth and emerges back into the world reborn.
Aaron Ralston is such a compelling protagonist primarily because he is a member of this cynical generation, a group of young men and women baptized in irony and grown to feel like they’re on board a train speeding toward the flat side of a mountain. But when confronted with the dark, with the prospect of pointlessness and surrender, he has the courage to say no. He frees himself , and in doing so also asserts himself. 127 Hours doesn’t force-feed any naive notion of a benevolent world. Nature in this film is as at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile. But the film does assert our ability to forge our own path through it all, with the crucial caveat that it is only the love of others that makes doing so worth it.
Life, in all its pains and glories and complications, is asserted. Now more than ever, we need a lot more of that.