After conquering space (Sunshine) and fighting back zombie hordes (28 Days Later), Danny Boyle achieved what was seemingly impossible by winning no less than 8 Academy Awards for an English/Hindi Slumdog Millionaire, an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Q & A. After taking out such a prestigious haul, including statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director (and equivalent personal nods at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes), where could the maverick director possibly go from there? Boyle returned to a concept that had intrigued him for several years, bringing his Slumdog Millionaire crew back to adapt mountain climber Aaron Ralston’s 2004 autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place to the screen.
Aaron Ralston (James Franco, Eat Pray Love) is a cocky canyoneer in the Utah desert, and has unwisely gone off on his latest adventure without telling a soul. After a brief encounter with two hikers (Amber Tamblyn, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Kate Mara, Transsiberian), he slips and becomes trapped when a fallen boulder pins his arm. In order to be rescued, he must extricate himself from the rock, climb a steep cliff face and walk 8 miles back to civilisation. Over the course of five days pinned under the rock, Ralston reflects on a former lover (Clemence Poesy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1), his family and friends, all in an attempt to search for the strength to do the unthinkable.
The idea of a feature film about a man trapped underneath a rock may seem like an interminably dull concept on paper. Despite being based on a bestselling autobiography, Boyle described 127 Hours as very much “an action movie with a guy who can’t move”. Indeed, co-writer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) reportedly struggled with the idea of how to make this concept compelling in an extended format. Through the magic of cinema, Boyle and Beaufoy have crafted a tightly woven and fast-paced story utilising the rapid editing and narrative techniques we have seen in Boyle’s films since Trainspotting. Even if you know the ending – and the sheer number of interviews with Ralston over the last few years and in the press junkets leading up to the release of this film would make that hard to avoid – there is an immediacy to the film that you can’t shake. At times you will have a physical reaction to the events, as Ralston’s mind darts from one thought or half-remembered emotion to the next. We too are stuck at the bottom of the canyon, and we too become hopelessly trapped in Ralston’s own mind.
Franco – who finds time to be a film director (Fool’s Gold and the forthcoming Broken Tower), screenwriter, film producer, author, and painter when he isn’t giving this acting lark a go – carries entire weight of the film on his shoulders in the performance of a lifetime. Infecting us with his enthusiastic hedonism early in the film, we are completely drawn into his world of speed at any cost. When the cost finally comes, Franco has already pinned us down as the devastating panic begins to set in.
When the inevitable tough decision is finally made, and it is a harrowing scene at that, there is a sense of joy mixed in with the extreme grotesque nature of the act. Even though the scenes are literally bone-breaking, once the realisation comes that the deed will result in Franco’s (and by extension the audience’s) liberation, the decision and the blood becomes easier to bear. Just as Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes used the sandy confined space to elicit a tactile claustrophobic reaction in the audience, one in which a contemplation of existence itself and finding a way to survive one’s own terms were the only options, so too is Ralston’s decision completely logical by the time it comes. The liberation of a man escaped from not only his physical confines, but from the mental barriers one places on themselves, is one of the most life-affirming experiences you are ever likely to have in a cinema.
127 Hours is released by Twentieth Century Fox in Australia from 10 February 2011.