Film review: 127 Hours

Duncan Wu applauds a nightmarish tale of a rock climber caught for five long days in a very hard place

December 9, 2010

1 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

Released in the UK on 7 January

Starring James Franco

On my way to see Danny Boyle's new film 1 Hours, I told my chauffeur its plot and he got very excited about it, perhaps because it describes the kind of situation many of us dream about - in nightmare. "That's a bad situation, man!" he said to me. "You sure don't never wanna go there!" He has a point.

Aron Ralston is a mountaineer. In 2003, hiking in a remote part of Utah, a falling boulder crushed his right forearm, wedging it immovably against an underground canyon wall. Having failed to tell anyone of his hiking plans, Ralston knew no one would realise he was missing, nor be searching for him. He didn't have a mobile phone or any electronic device other than a video camera. In succeeding hours and then days, he sipped what remained of his water while trying vainly to extricate his arm from the vice-like prison in which it was trapped. Accepting what he assumed would be his fate, he finally videotaped his last words to his family and carved his name and date of birth into the stone walls by which he was incarcerated.

The essential situation of this film is a static one involving one actor, and Boyle has made of it a tour de force - not just for James Franco, who portrays Ralston as a careless, fancy-free, self-centred young man, but for himself and co-writer Simon Beaufoy, who find inventive ways to sustain nearly an hour of screen time during which Franco is immobilised with no one to talk to besides himself. The test for any actor would be the believability with which Ralston initially cries for help when he realises the severity of his plight: Franco's credibility in that department is never in question, and his desperation, will to survive and growing realisation that he is to die, are portrayed with frightening honesty.

As my chauffeur observed, the template for this kind of drama is Robinson Crusoe (which he referred to as Castaway - thinking, doubtless, of the Tom Hanks film). The point of Daniel Defoe's novel is that Crusoe perceives his fate as a judgement upon his moral failings, realising that its purpose is to teach him humility. Boyle's film follows a similar course. Trapped in a hole in the ground in a standing position, his forearm crushed between a rock and a hard place, Ralston surveys his arrogance towards his parents and towards the girlfriend he dumped at a basketball game. "One day", she tells him in flashback, "you will be alone."

Boyle conducts us on the long journey through each of the five days Ralston spent underground, depicting every stage of his diminishing hopes and growing belief that he is to die. He shows us the relish with which Ralston first downs stale water from his camelback, and then (when there is no alternative) his own urine. Ralston's dread at that prospect takes the form of urine threading its way along a transparent tube towards us; it is one of the most memorable images in the film.

Trapped in the hole, Ralston reproaches himself with the thought: "Is it because you're such a big fucking hard hero that you didn't tell anyone where you were going? Oops!" The climax of the drama is the point at which he is reduced to begging for help, knowing that, when he does, help will come. He has learned to humble himself. The point is that we are part of a larger whole, and the refusal to take responsibility for the plight of others can only diminish us.

1 Hours had a budget of $18 million and was funded by a subsidiary of Fox, but it is interesting that Boyle has made the film look as if it were independently produced. Some of its images have rough edges to them, and parts of the soundtrack have a scratchy quality, as if dubbed off Ralston's videocam. All the same, Boyle has surrounded himself with the best practitioners in their fields, and the result is everywhere to be seen. No director of photography has so persuasively evoked the sensuousness of the Utah canyons as Anthony Dod Mantle, nor has any composer before A.R. Rahman found a better correlative in sound for the feeling of panic that wells up within us at the knowledge that we are in mortal danger.

This is a thrilling film to watch, all the more so for the pains that are taken over it, and the fact that it tells a true story. The title sequence alone proves that Boyle is one of the most inspired film-makers around at the moment. I'd recommend it to anyone - even my chauffeur.

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