I was of two minds about going to see this film yesterday because of all the news reports about people fainting during the move -- though no one said where or when or interviewed any of the faintees. Although I admit to feeling like I could not breathe during parts of the film, I was never tempted to faint. I was too involved in the film.
Everyone surely knows the story. It is based on the true story of what happened to 27 year-old Aron Ralston (James Franco), who in 2003 became trapped in a Utah canyon while hiking. As he made his way through a narrow passage, a small boulder fell, crushing his right forearm.
Ralston hadn’t told anyone where he was going, though he was an experienced outdoorsman. For five days he sipped the little water he had, was reduced to drinking his own urine, and taped messages to his parents on his video camera. Then, as a last resort, he broke his arm and with a dull tool cut through the flesh and tendons to free himself. He then scaled a sheer wall before encountering three tourists who gave him water and called for help.
Danny Boyle, who directed and co-wrote the film with Simon Beaufoy (both won Oscars for “Slumdog Millionaire”), has created a harrowing cinematic narrative about courage that literally screams: we cannot do it alone; we need one another!
Ralston is the solitary man of the West who has a map and thinks he knows his destination but tells no one. He throws necessities in his backpack and sets out while it is dark. At daybreak he races down trails on his mountain bike, exalting in his good health and abilities. He is a happy man, at home in the beautiful Utah outback.
But as much as he plans and thinks he knows the way, his destination was far and above Blue John Canyon where he was stopped in his tracks.
If I were to analyze Ralston’s character based on the film, I would say he is a good man without guile. He exalts in his freedom and seems a very well-adjusted human being.
Ralston’s main flaw is that he is still young. Though he knew accidents in the wild are always possible, he didn’t think anything like this would happen to him. Otherwise he wouldn’t have left without his Swiss Army knife or telling someone where he was going.
Ralston was in too much of a hurry. He comes to regret this essential rule for survival, as well as not spending more time with his parents and answering his mom’s phone calls.
Boyle gets us up close and personal for most of the film.
We go from exalting in the expanse of the open land to feeling like we are trapped with Ralston -- we can only see a bit of sky through the narrow canyon’s ceiling.
Ralston looks at his watch continually and marks the days by brief exposure to the morning sun and a hawk that flies past at the same time every day. We are inside his memories and finally, his hallucinations of regret.
But what neither Ralston or Boyle let us ever feel is despair. Like America’s pioneers at their best -- or as myth has preserved them -- even in the face of death, Ralston is a realist, a pragmatist, an optimist and, ultimately, grateful.
I broke down in real tears when finally Ralston sees a man, woman and child in a haze just beyond him. “I need help! I need help!” he cries. They turn in wonder at this dirty, unshaved man stumbling toward them and after a moment, hand him a water bottle; the mother and child run ahead to call for help.
If there is one motif in the film that stands out it is that of water. It is essential to all of life, but I think here it is used as a metaphor for initiation (Ralston showing two female hikers a pool in a cave), cleansing, chaos, death, and -- finally -- rebirth. Water gives him the ability to keep going.
Is this a spiritual film? Unlike Danny Boyle’s charming and explicitly religious 2004 Christmas parable “Millions”, God is never mentioned. Instead what we feel is this need to be connected to other people, to care about them, to be in relationship with them -- enough to communicate where we are headed so those who love us will not worry.
Ralston’s anguished “Please, please” as he tries to shift the rock, is like a prayer. But once he frees his arm, he looks up to the sky and whispers, “Thank you.” To me, this was enough.
A case can also be made for appreciating the natural beauty of the wilderness, for in exalting in its beauty and even the harshness of its arid terrain is another metaphor for the hero’s test on a journey to an unexpected destiny.
The realization that neither Ralston, nor we, can make it alone dominated my thoughts afterwards, and even today. As Americans we are supposed to be and often aim to be strong individuals who don’t need anyone and have no one dependent upon us -- to be free!
Ralston’s journey shows us that we are all dependent upon one another to survive, to grow, to mature, and to be happy in this life. To be unconnected and isolated by choice is a false freedom because alone we will die in many ways, the first of which is spiritually.
If you watch any of the CSI shows or medical dramas, you are used to blood and body parts. Even the sight of Ralston breaking his arm may not shock you, but put sight and sound together and it felt like my arm breaking. It was a very intense moment. But would I have had Ralston’s courage? I would like to hope so.
The film’s running time is only about 90 minutes and is based on Ralston’s 2004 memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Though I knew how the film was going to end, it made no difference. It had me from the beginning. It never lags. James Franco as Ralston is brilliant.
I think “127 Hours” is fine filmmaking and Oscar worthy. In these days leading up to Thanksgiving, it is an especially inspiring tale of gratitude.
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