In early 2003 outdoorsmen, the media and average Joes alike were abuzz with a mind-boggling story of desperation and willpower from the Horseshoe canyons in Utah, America. A young, skilled rock climber named Aron Ralston had travelled out to the remote Bluejohn canyon but became trapped in a narrow crevice when a huge chalkstone boulder fell from above onto his right hand and wrist. Aron was powerless to budge the boulder and too far from the busiest part of the canyon to encounter any assistance. Nobody knew where he was. He was stuck this way for five days. On the fifth day Ralston performed the unfathomable task of cutting off his trapped forearm with a blunt pocket-knife. By the end of the day he had escaped back into the arms of civilisation, and was receiving nourishment and medical assistance.
Then a sensation in the presses, Ralston’s choice to live has remained a fascination. Whilst a true story, it eerily resembles a philosophical “hypothetical”. You’re trapped under a rock but are otherwise unharmed: would you auto-amputate to save your own life? Many of us respond to such questions with the attitude that life is never that simple, that there are always variables, complications and grey areas. Aron Ralston, however, was living a riddle – he had no variables. Just a choice between losing his arm or his life. This might be the reason the cinematic adaptation, directed by the decorated Danny Boyle, makes for such a captivating film. It is not only a story of singular humanity, but it allows us to experience what it is like to stand at the proverbial forked road. What it is like to be (as Ralston’s autobiography is titled) between a rock and a hard place. 127 Hours begs the question: if the situation arose, could you do the same?
In entertainment terms it is easy to suspect that regardless of a striking synopsis, this simple story, one-man cast and fixed location might not satisfactorily fill out a 90minute feature: that Ralston’s story is one best told over a campfire or around the water cooler than played out on the silver screen. This has turned out to be far from the truth. Boyle is a director for whom a film should always be about the possibilities of cinema, as well as about its subject. His presence as a director is like that of a puppet master. He allows his actors to perform beautifully, but his hand is always visible, in inventive camera angles, visual trickery, clever editing, on-screen text and strong music selections. Every little detail of Ralston’s experience (his water bottle, an ant, re-winding his video camera, thinking about his family) is enhanced, injected with Boyle’s signature steroid, a mountain made of every molehill. A simple tale has been made utterly dynamic, and it is Boyle, not Franco, who is telling us the story of 127 Hours. Perhaps in synchronisation with Ralston, Boyle has made an extreme sport of cinema.
This tactic has an equalising effect that makes such a feature of the film’s components (be they performance, special effect, file footage e.t.c.) that there is only really room for one trick at a time. The audience is always absorbed in the present. Each moment is so big that it is nearly impossible to consider the whole narrative or where it’s going. As a result, the film is structured into chapter-like sequences. As might be guessed, some of these are flashbacks, but thankfully these are kept to a minimum. In fact, there are no flashbacks depicting further into Ralston’s past than the morning of his departure. Those included represent daydreams, instead of asides for the audience’s information. We are also party to his hallucinations. They range from the possible to the fantastic, and give us a sense of how easily the most trivial or banal thoughts can intrude upon our darkest moments, perhaps a diet coke jingle interrupting dying ruminations. This evokes the plight of climber Joe Simpson, who famously had a Boney M song stuck in his head during his escape from death’s clutches in the Siula Grande mountains, and about whom the documentary Touching the Void was made.
The darkest and most desperate moment in the film, indeed the moment upon which the story hinges, is of course the amputation. This unblinking scene isn’t kind to the feint hearted, and is accordingly awarded a length of several (very long) minutes of film time. Determined though I was to witness the whole thing, I was eventually overwhelmed. Despite this, I feel there was nothing gratuitous to this bloody depiction. It was horrific, which was appropriate. Whilst this is a film with a ‘main event’, or perhaps because of it, all other powerful moments come as engaging surprises. If you take the ride, Boyle will take a kaleidoscope to Aron Ralston’s slow, tragic predicament before your eyes, turning it to show you a rich, visceral, fragmented rendition of one of the best true stories of recent times.