It’s safe to assume at this point in time that everybody knows the story of Aron Ralston, or at least the essential details surrounding the one 127 hours that would change his life forever. Ralston was a rock climber (and admirably, still is) who stumbled his way into the most awful of situations – trapped in a canyon, his arm crushed beneath a large boulder which has him pinned against a wall. It’s immovable and Ralston knows this, even as he desperately tries to fashion an escape. Eventually, he becomes resigned to the fact that if he wants to survive this ordeal, there’s only one way out. He snaps his arm in two places before sawing it off completely with a blunt pen knife.
127 Hours chronicles this chapter in Aron Ralston’s life. He’s played to supreme effect here by James Franco, with Danny Boyle directing from a script adapted from Ralston’s own book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It’s a remarkably tough task to carry an entire film on your own but Franco does it with complete proficiency. There are times throughout where there’s little more for him to do than wince in pain or grasp in distress at the non-budging rock – but there’s something about his presence and the anguish on his face that propels Franco’s performance from being decent to outstanding.
We begin with Aron as he prepares for a few days canyoning in Utah, the place where he’ll eventually leave his arm. We’re not shown much of his life prior to the event outside of a number of flashbacks (some delirious) that occur later on. It’s a smart move, leaving us to become accustomed to a character who, by his own admission, is a bit of a jerk. He’s a loner, unsociable not through awkwardness, but through stubbornness. Boyle’s direction is as hurried as Ralston and just as headstrong. There’s a shot early on of Aron drinking from a water bottle – someone else might have chosen a flat shot for this whereas Boyle sticks the camera right inside the bottle. It gets used again later on to great effect when Aron runs out of fluids while trapped by the boulder.
On his way through Utah, Ralston comes across two hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). They’re a little lost, but luckily for them, Aron knows the way. He re-writes the guidebook in showing them his own path to their destination, with a detour through a huge underground pool. With that, he bounds away again, the girls a little bit taken with his demeanour. “I don’t think that we figured in his day at all,” they remark. They’re right. You get the impression that Ralston might just have taken the detour anyway.
As he springs and bounces away, calamity strikes. He falls, scrabbling down the side of a steep drop. Just as his feet hit the ground a boulder smashes his arm up against the rock wall, pinning him in. He struggles desperately to get free but to no avail. We’re only half an hour into the film. From this point, Aron Ralston’s real journey begins. He uses his video camera to record a series of diary entries and goodbye messages. He smashes at the boulder with his penknife in an attempt to chip away an escape route. He builds a series of pulleys with his climbing ropes that get him absolutely nowhere. All of these acts are guards being thrown up by Ralston so that he can put off coming to terms with the inevitable. He should have told somebody where he was going. He’s going to have to rely on other people for help. And he’s going to have to cut off his own arm.
With his arm snapped in two places (backed up by some impressive camerawork), Ralston sets about it with his blunted penknife. It’s grisly and visceral, with the knife slowly picking away at nerves and ligaments. Eventually, he slices through the last of his flesh and pulls himself away from the rock. Almost delirious, he turns around and stops to take a lingering look back at what he’s left behind. In a film that revolves so wholly around one desperate act, it’s this image that remains the most powerful.