One thing that is always the kicker when it comes to seeing a movie based on a true story is that often I know how it ends. No one went into Titanic expecting to see the plucky engineers turning the boat in time, missing the iceberg and changing the movie into The Love Boat; no one thought Gallipoli was going to be a gentle travel narrative. So going into 127 Hours, I knew exactly what happened to Aron Ralston during his climbing accident in Utah. If you’ve been paying attention to the movie’s publicity, you’ll know that the film’s based on Ralston’s autobiography, so you know he survives. Because I work in a bookstore, and I can’t ever refrain from flicking through pictures in autobiographies (it’s my protip on the shortest way to understand the entire plot if I get asked questions by customers), I know how it happened. So did Danny Boyle sustain my interest in an entire movie set around one guy stuck between a rock and a hard place (I’m not being corny, that’s the name of the book) and with an ending I knew clearly? We all know I love to answer my own questions, so here: Oh My, Yes.
127 Hours is amazing. I can’t recommend it enough. I also can’t stress enough how much you shouldn’t bring your small children to see this, like the family I saw with a stack of kids so little they needed booster seats—not only is the fourth word of the opening song “fuck”, but there are some scenes so visceral that there are warning signs all over the movie theatre alerting viewers to the danger of seizures. Okay, so maybe I’m a prude, but it’s rated MA15+, so The Man agrees with me.
Aron Ralston is a happy-go-lucky outdoorsman, in his element when thrashing around America’s expansive countryside. One Friday night he drives to Utah’s rocky desert, sleeps in his car, then wakes up fresh and peppy to make his way to Blue John Canyon. On his way he encounters two lost and conveniently pretty girls, and he sets them back on their path, but not before taking them on a nifty little side tour, revealing his ultimate desire to be an outback guide. They part ways, the girls inviting him to a party of theirs locatable by the giant inflatable Scooby Doo, and Aron continues bouncing around the place. Then, while making his way down a crevasse, a solid-looking rock falls and Aron tumbles along with it. When Aron and the rock come to rest, his arm is lodged firmly between the canyon wall and the rock itself.
Movies about people trapped in small spaces have to work hard to keep you from getting bored, and of all directors, the ever-inventive Danny Boyle is absolutely the one to nail the genre. While all moments spent in the enclosed space with the camera lodged in Aron’s face are still compelling, he does give the viewer the relief of flashbacks and elaborate hallucinations, but they are not so extended they remove you from the ultimate claustrophobia of being stuck to a stone. The beauty of his surroundings are lost on neither us nor Aron himself, angling his foot out to catch the fifteen minutes of sunshine he gets a day, or setting his clock by the raven that flies ahead in the morning. He’s in his element, but has made a fatal error: no one knows where he was going, or when he was intending to return. So if the movie has a moral, it’s that. Leave a note, kids. Or take up a low-impact sport like Extreme Toastmaking.
The movie opens with loud intense music, and a three-way splitscreen that takes you between sports, cheering crowds, and the energetic Aron planning his trip to the canyon. The splitscreen continues as Aron bikes his way through the rocky terrain—even spectacularly crashing, the kind of fall that would send me into a whimpering mess and unable to walk for weeks but just makes Aron laugh heartily at his clumsiness and get right back on—and adds to the kind of on-edge hyper-realistic tone of the film. The scenes of Aron taking his new lady friends to a gorgeous blue pool you can get to only by a dangerous and concealed plunge into nothing is breathtaking, and the atmosphere until Aron is trapped absolutely makes the viewer understand the allure of his lifestyle, even for someone like me whose outdoor activities mostly comprise of running only late at night when no one can point and laugh.
Watching Aron use all of his knowledge to survive and try to escape is enlightening—from making an outfit out of rope during the cold nights, conserving his pee to drink later (and you really believe it, too, and feel a bit ill watching it), and attempting to set up a pulley system to get the rock off. As his physical and mental functions start to fail, we see him exhausted, and hallucinating the inflatable Scooby Doo in the recesses of the cavern. (And you will be legitimately spooked, too.) More heartbreaking is Aron’s realisation that he put himself in this position, alienating those that love him—family (including his sister, played by Lizzy Caplan), friends, and lovers (including Harry Potter’s Clemence Poesy as the beautiful wispy partner he pushed away)—causing no one to know he would be gone. His determination to start again eventually drives him to commit the act he is known for—and if you’ve never seen Aron Ralston and know nothing of the story, skip this next paragraph, okay?
So you’re all wondering about the arm scene, aren’t you? Of course you are, you creepazoids. You’ll know the seizure moment when it arrives—more in the form of noise that compounds the tension—and while it doesn’t take the full amount of time it took Ralston himself, it still doesn’t feel like it holds back. Ralston filmed the process at the time, and let Boyle and Franco watch it (apparently his mother did too, and undoubtedly wished she hadn’t), and it does feel real, look gruesome, and make everyone in the cinema cover their eyes and squirm and squeal. Don’t be ashamed. Everyone else is doing it too.
But all of that means that the Sigur Ros-fuelled final moments of the film had me literally clutching my heart and weeping. I’ve never clutched my heart in a movie before, so that was a new thing for me, and a bit embarrassing and histrionic. But I did it, and you might do it too.
In summary: Exceeds Expectations, almost to the point of the ridiculous. It is an incredible film. The only thing that was underplayed was how much pain Franco was in—sure, he looked anguished at the start as he stares at his trapped arm, the wall above flecked with chunks of skin and blood, but then he seems to take a deep breath and never look in pain again. Even if he’d just said at one point, “Well, this hurts a bit, but what can you do?” I would have felt better. But that’s what happens when Danny Boyle doesn’t get me to read over the script.