By Bryan Nixon.
The opening credit sequence of 127 Hoursis a split screen triptych bursting with vibrant colors of modern society: crowds cheering, the running of the bulls, competitive swimmers racing, New Yorkers scurrying to work, an overpopulated California beach, and a fridge containing Gatorade and Coors. The fridge belongs to Aron Ralston, a young man who is preparing to venture away from this chaotic society to explore the calm landscape of the American desert. Curiously, Danny Boyle also directs audience attention to water dripping from Aron’s kitchen sink and the slick Swiss Army knife that his right hand leaves behind in the kitchen cabinet. As soon as Aron hits the road, bombarding images of blazing LA traffic and fly-by fast food restaurant signs display an extensive yet condensed world. Water still drips from the kitchen sink.
In 2003, Aron Ralston cut off his right hand because it was wedged between a boulder and a canyon wall; this film is about that moment. James Franco portrays Aron as a limber, energetic, charming, daring, and arrogant rock climber. Despite the fact that the audience knows that Aron is going to eventually land literally between a rock and a hard place, the occurrence of the freak accident is unexpected and perplexing. We make the same exclamation as Aron: “This is insane!” The camera eventually pulls away from Aron, as he screams for help, and high into the sky to reveal the vast and quiet desert. The sense of loneliness harnessed by this shot is immediate.
The majority of the film unfolds in the dark, narrow canyon. Since the antagonist is a boulder, or simply a stagnant entity, which Aron constantly interacts with, the filmmakers had to take advantage of numerous film techniques to maintain the film’s momentum. Boyle provides rapidly cut long shots of the desert engulfing Aron as he bikes and hikes his way through the exposition. Close-ups in the desert are few and far between. However, extreme close-ups of Aron and the things around him (his wrist watch, the water bottle, the multi-tool, rope, and ants) are dominantly used during his constant struggle. In fact, this film is about the close-up: that which is small and insignificant in such daunting terrain is made large and crucial. This enhances the intimacy of the experience as the camera takes advantage of and examines every inch of space within Aron’s vicinity.
Whereas shot type dissects the man vs. nature element of the story, editing techniques fuel the struggle between man and himself. Jump cuts frequently energize Aron’s vulnerability, pain, and paranoia. Character background and development unfold in the canyon. Boyle provides as little information as possible in the exposition; all audiences know of Aron is that he is a disciplined and friendly yet solo canyoneer. While Aron is trapped, he delves into memories of parties, his ex-girlfriend, and childhood memories of his family. Once audiences are pulled into these memories, however, Aron’s present turmoil takes hold again. Aron has several hallucinations that break him free, such as an instant when a flash flood washes the rock away and Aron runs to his ex-girlfriend’s house, only to be ignored and portrayed out of focus. A time lapse with a punch line hurtles from the canyon through the desert to Aron’s truck and freezes on a sweaty bottle of Gatorade; thirst is hallucinatory. Moreover, Boyle is wise to proceed without the use of voiceover and instead rely on true-to-life handycam confessions and Franco’s progressively disturbed performance.
The amputation sequence is an appropriately unbearable examination of the sheer will to survive. Camera movements snap. Constant close-ups of the action are claustrophobic. Rahman’s vicious guitar-based score is enhanced with screeching sound effects that erupt when Aron digs into his arm. The sense of relief is alarming when Aron finally cuts all the way through and realizes that he is liberated. A premonition of his future son drives him. His motivation is encouraged and incredibly hopeful.
This brings us back to water. Water is depicted as a perfectly clear blue substance throughout. The resolution of the film is a montage of Aron drinking from the water bottles of other hikers in the smoldering sun. Before he finds a single soul, however, Aron’s first drink after breaking free is from a filthy pool of black water that appears as unappetizing as possible. A sigh of relief is released and Aron purposefully collapses into the pool. One could claim that this is the best water Aron Ralston ever drank.
Director Danny Boyle
Screenplay Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
Original Novel Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
Producers Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, John Smithson
Directors of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle, Enrique Chediak
Art Director Christopher R. DeMuri
Costumes Suttirat Anne Larlarb
With James Franco (Aron Ralston), Amber Tamblyn (Megan), Kate Mara (Kristi), Treat Williams (Aron’s Dad), Clemence Poesy (Rana)
Runtime 94 minutes
Bryan Nixon is a recent graduate of the Film Studies Department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.