127 Hours

Danny Boyle, James Franco, Aron Ralston.

Yes, they’re all unrepentant narcissists, but, as the old Sesame Street jingle goes, “One of these things is not like the others…” Who is it? If you guessed Aron Ralston, you’d be right: he has only one arm. He was forced to hack it off with a cheap pocketknife when it got jammed between a boulder and the wall of a thin crevice that he fell into while canyoning alone in an isolated area of Utah in 2003. Ralston, an experienced climber, did not tell anyone where he was or when he’d return home, although he’d told two young women hikers—played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Maren (TV’s Entourage)—whom he’d met en route to his fateful hell-hole that he’d go to their party that Friday night.

He was stuck between that rock and a hard place for more than five days with little water or food before he decided to break his arm, scale the 65-foot wall of the crevice and hike eight miles—all the while bleeding excessively from the self-inflicted gaping wound in his upper arm, dehydrated and near death—to find help. No one knew he was down there because the area was remote; there were no other hikers around for miles and no one passed over the canyon in the time he was stuck there. He had only his digital camcorder for company—which doubled as a confessional, diary, and notary, containing, as it did in what Ralston supposed might be his final moments, something of a last will and testament.

Like most nutcase extreme sports enthusiasts, Ralston appears to be at least somewhat mentally unstable. He would apparently “do it all again,” has “no regrets” and “wouldn’t change a thing” about the harrowing, unimaginably painful experience which has now become fodder for a new film by Danny Boyle. Some stories are unfilmable, and Boyle has proven that this is certainly one of them. However, the film has a few brief shining moments, and it could not be better cast: James Franco is the ideal actor to portray Ralston, not only because he appears to be one of the most narcissistic stars of his generation, or because of his insatiable appetite to want to try everything (in the process turning his life into performance art) but because the film, if it is about anything at all, is about narcissism.

This is apparent on all sides, including the script and, obviously, the acting, but none moreso than in its formal characteristics: including the opening and closing titles—split-screen stock footage of marathons and bustling financial centres—which look like something from a mid-nineties “look how crazy-busy the world is now” current affairs piece, draw attention to themselves and Ralston’s Energizer Bunny-like frenetic pace. The film is shot like a continuous, 90-minute soft-drink commercial, deliberately drawing attention to its feats of technicality at every turn. Aside from a few tantalisingly brief pre-fall moments of Franco hopping from rocky plateau to rocky plateau, the cinematography is gnawingly claustrophobic but never still or quiet: no shot is longer than about half a minute. (Hmm, imagining the possibilities this story might afford someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul or another exponent of slow cinema is kind of blowing my mind a little bit. But I digress.)

The film is claustrophobic in an innovative way: we go inside two devices that become crucial to the plot: Ralston’s camera, and his brain. His camera, whose inner mechanics are recreated with CGI, records his thoughts, and, eventually, once exhaustion and mental instability (plus the realisation that he must now start drinking his own urine or wither away) set in, we see his hallucinations and daydreams in vivid colour. He visits his girlfriend, and other friends and family appear briefly. He goes to that party those girls told him about, but only in his dreams. Then we see a Mountain Dew ad, because he’s dreaming about quenching his thirst and apparently his every waking (and sleeping) thought is informed by advertising.

The disarmament itself is seen from the inside, CSI-stlye, and it’s expectedly grisly (though not quite relentless Saw VI-level “hide-your-head-in-your-hands” gross). Everything from the multiple angles, to the relentless split-screen and multiple camera set-up (there’s even a camera at the bottom of his Nalgene-brand water bottle) screams “look at me!,” and Franco’s spot-on stoned-seeming, appropriately smug performance does the same. This would have been fine material for a short film—perfect, actually, in the right hands—but at feature-length it goes from being merely arduous to ridiculously, seriously grating.

Malcolm Harris posits the truly horrifying possibility that, in the Hollywood of only a few years ago, Paul Walker could have conceivably been cast as Ralston. Harris doesn’t go far enough when he calls the imagined product of this casting “inexcusably bad”—it would have been a vomit-inducing travesty. So while Boyle’s 127 Hours is largely unwatchable, it at least stars Franco and not the fast, furious dude from those car-racing movies.

Cross-posted at The Corner.