On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours described as “that film where James Franco cuts his arm off.”
Why stop there? It’s only part of the story. Would those same people summarize Psycho as the film where Janet Leigh takes a shower, or The Empire Strikes Back as the movie where Luke Skywalker argues with his dad? Handcuffing Boyle’s extraordinary drama to such a condensed soundbite not only undersells the movie’s emotional impact, it overlooks Boyle’s unifying message and avoids the film’s inspirational point.
Granted, it’s tough to criticize those who linger on Boyle’s unforgettable amputation scene, which has sent audience members tumbling into the still-intact arms of waiting paramedics. Once you’ve witnessed it, it’s impossible to dismiss. The searing audio cue Boyle uses to signify Franco slicing through the nerves in his trapped appendage still haunts me.
But when I reflect on that scene, I’m awestruck by the personal endurance and limitless determination of a man who is hellbent on reclaiming his life. The gore associated with the sequence hardly registers. And when I think back on 127 Hours as a whole — which happens often — it’s Boyle’s uplifting conclusion that packs the greater wallop, elevating this challenging film to unexpected emotional heights.
On paper, 127 Hours doesn’t even sound like the kind of movie Boyle could pull off, let alone the sort of story he’d be interested in attempting. You’re going to tell me that the frenetic filmmaker who plunged down a dirty toilet with Ewan McGregor, sprinted through the alleys of a zombie-infested London, and danced across Mumbai’s train platforms as A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho” blared would groove on a story where one character spends the bulk of the film wedged in a tight crevasse carved into the side of a Utah cliff?
That’s what happened to mountain climber Aron Ralston, who was pinned beneath a boulder for a little more than five days in 2003. Played by an unapologetically grungy Franco, Ralston brims with unchecked ego. These caves are his second home, so it’s only natural that he’d offer to chaperone two lovely hikers (Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn), and rush through his final progressions so he might be able to join them at a keg party later that evening. Alas, fate has other plans.
Boyle unearths something in that claustrophobic cavern as he recollects Ralston’s amazing story: inspiration. Don’t think for one second that the director is hindered by the tight fit of his setting, or the sole focus of his narrative. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, oh the places Boyle’s camera will go, as 127 Hours races along. His lens bends around rock formations, soars high in the sky above Franco’s head, drops from great heights into a tidal basin, and — in its most breathtaking moments — settles in to capture the range of emotions conveyed by Franco’s expressive face.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) helps out, figuring clever ways to spring us from the cave for brief respites. Ralston revisits memories of early hikes with his father (Treat Williams). He dreams he’s attending the party with those two hotties he met on the trails. He hallucinates that he’s talking to Scooby-Doo.
Mostly, Ralston remembers his past achievements, and wonders if he’ll be able to have more. He combs over his regrets. Some are little, like leaving a Swiss Army knife at home in his cabinet. Others seem crucial, like not telling anyone where he was going.
Each memory hurts more than the rock pinching his arm. But 127 Hours isn’t mournful, and Franco never asks for pity. Boyle actually lightens the mood when possible, streaming Bill Withers’s soulful serenade, “A Lovely Day,” or conjuring a brilliantly funny talk-show confessional where Ralston candidly interviews himself and fesses up to his deepest faults. And then Ralston has a vision, or more of a premonition. It raises his hope. It gives him strength. It solidifies his will to survive. And it catapults 127 Hours to a new level of excellence.
There’s a broader theme linking the better films of 2010, and it has to do with how our society stays connected. Inception steamrolled through dream landscapes so one man could reunite with his lost love. Andy’s toys go to hell and back to stay attached to their owner in Toy Story 3. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t concerned with Facebook so much as it’s interested in our culture’s need for a digital tool to bind us together.
127 Hours is no different. Boyle’s film isn’t about isolation. It’s about the personal connections Ralston made during his life, and the extreme obstacles he’d slice through in order to reestablish them. 127 Hours isn’t a significant film because it is “that film where James Franco cuts his arm off.” It’s significant, moving, and extraordinary because Boyle and his leading man convince us beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly why this man needs to cut his arm off. Boyle’s amputation scene is every bit as harrowing as it needs to be. But it’s the scenes that follow — where Ralston re-enters society and learns to lean on others — which cement the legacy of this truly inspiring and unforgettable film.