Inspirational movies might be an easy sell (the tougher times are, the bigger they sell – see Danny Boyle’s previous film, the Mumbai fairy-tale Slumdog Millionaire), but they are quite precarious to make. Such films tread the fine, delicate line that separates genuine emotion from syrupy schmaltz that when it’s recklessly handled, it can wander into the land of Kitschville, the backyard of Hallmark Channel and hundreds of cheap, drippy Hollywood melodramas. In lesser hands, the true story of Aron Ralson, the American adrenaline junkie whose arm got stuck by a boulder whilst canyoneering in Utah, could have been dangerously steered into shameless, crowdpleasing sentimentalism where boy faces the biggest physical tribulation of his life, learns all his mistakes and comes out a changed man and stop being such an arsehole. Cue man-tears and big hugs. In Boyle’s 127 Hours, that barely happens, thankfully, although it comes very close to pushing the cheese buttons near its finale. But Boyle makes the film experience mostly awe-inspiring. Here’s an average chap who went for an outdoor escapade around the magnificent vista of the Blue John Canyon out of sheer passion, and admitted foolishness for not letting anyone know where he’s heading, and unexpectedly gets trapped by a rock. Of course, anyone familiar with this story knows how it ends. Ralston performs a DIY arm surgery and eventually escapes what could have been a fatal conclusion to his life. But it’s the minutes in 127 Hours that counts – every drop of sweat, every gulp of his own urine, every furious and wholehearted attempt at freeing himself, every realisation of his past foolhardiness – that makes this a riveting, spellbinding watch with a terrific central performance by James Franco.
This viewing experience is not made less harrowing and exhilarating due to Boyle’s cinematic approach. He infuses the first half with such kinetic, propulsive energy, employing split-screens and dynamic editing largely found in Pepsi Max advertisements. And when Ralston falls with the boulder, so is the camerawork, but only a for a while. Boyle uses every minuscule detail, every angle of the situation to fully realise Ralston’s entrapment, his ensuing paranoia and the fervent will to survive. Flashbacks, then, are inescapable in this narrative trajectory as this trapped hero recalls in sporadic moments the things he could have done differently, his aloof family affairs and his failed relationship. There is even a golden-hued mirage of his entire family on a sofa at the middle of a rock canyon that borders on the slightly nostalgic. But it escapes that territory, and soon we’re terrorised into the real horror of the escape. The result is a gruesome sight, certainly not for the queasy types, as the camera never pulls its unrelenting eyes from the severance of his arm. It’s a horrific, bloody yet sobering metaphor for the things we sacrifice for the sake of survival. Perhaps Ralston’s central message may be this: we need to lose some parts of ourselves to become a better person out of the greatest of life’s struggles. Cue triumphant Sigur Rós soundtrack.
Danny Boyle certainly knows how to hold your attention in this exhilaratingly told motivational drama. Not a single minute of 127 Hours drips with abandon nor steers into cheapo sentimentality. This is dignified, glorious and triumphant, with a winning James Franco as the American self-made hero, Aron Ralston.