A little break from my appraisal of 1937 for another new review…
James Franco is a talented actor but after seeing Howl a couple of months ago, the intended biography of Allen Ginsberg’s groundbreaking 1956 poem, I worried for him. He gave a stunted, uninspired performance that felt more like an amateur theater monologue rather than a fully formed performance. In fairness he didn’t have a lot to do. The script called for him to drone on about his life and work to an unseen interviewer. It might have been acceptable on stage where we expect long poetic monologues, but not in film. In effect he played Ginsberg playing a version of himself for an interviewer, hardly compelling filmmaking or acting. While he may have gotten the pace of his speech and the specific physical ticks right, he couldn’t involve us beyond that. I respected his decision to try something challenging, but didn’t he see the inherent limitations of the role? He was chained to Ginsberg’s own depiction of himself without the ability to put his own spin on the material. There was little life or emotion in what he did. I was also afraid that my earlier estimation of Franco’s talents may have been inflated by good directors and editors.
127 Hours definitively clears away any concerns. Franco is so good that we hardly notice he’s acting (something we definitely saw in Howl). Based on a true story, he plays Aron Ralston, a cavalier (a nicer word for reckless) mountaineer who makes his way alone into Bluejohn Canyon, a narrow ravine snaking through the Robber’s Roost area of eastern Utah. A loose boulder slips out from under his feet causing him to plummet down the canyon and his arm gets wedged between it and the canyon wall. There he stayed, unable to dislodge the rock, for several days. Low on food and water, unable to sit or lie down, and exposed to the cold with little clothing, Ralston managed to stay alive until he reached the point where drastic action had to be taken. No one knew where he was so rescue was a dim hope in the remote place and death was sure to come. In an explicitly graphic scene, Ralston is forced to cut off his own arm with a dull knife.
Franco handles the transformation of his character effortlessly. In the early scenes he is confident, obviously over-confident to those of us who know where the story is going. He rides his bike over rough terrain when we know he should go slower. Eventually he eats it, ending up sprawled across the dusty ground. Is this a sign that he should slow down? Of course not. It’s a moment to giggle and snap a picture. It’s just another story he can tell later to awe those of us who prefer to keep our bones in one piece. He revels in his superior knowledge and heightened appreciation of nature, thinking this makes him invulnerable to some of its dangers. Once he’s trapped, Franco alternately showcases Ralston’s intelligence, frustration, and fear. We watch a man slowly devolve emotionally, but he resists the temptation to lose it completely. To do so would be to give up and that is unthinkable to him. Franco delivers his most accomplished performances ably handling the emotional ups and downs of Ralston without mindless histrionics. He’s always conscious of Ralston’s keen intelligence which is the only thing that got him out of there alive. Franco does a great job in one of the best performances of the year.
Most of the picture is set in the claustrophobic confines of the canyon, but the movie transcends these limitations with Franco’s stellar performance and Danny Boyle’s confident directing. We’re able to get into Ralston’s mind both through Franco’s convincing messages to his family that he records with his video and through Boyle’s frenetic visits to Ralston’s memories, dreams, hallucinations, and fantasies. Ralston may have been trapped in that canyon, but his mind wasn’t. That is easier to explore in a book, but Boyle and Franco succeed in elevating the tale beyond a step by step recount of the events to an inspiring tale of strength, courage, and redemption while watching a man go through an inner-transformation.
Yes, the movie is at times hard to watch. The scene in which he cuts off his arm is especially gruesome, but not gratuitously so. Often our imaginations are sufficient, but in this case most of us can’t truly appreciate what it would take to do something like that. There is no other way to understand what this man went through and appreciate his strength and resolve than to see what he had to do to survive, exposed tendons and all. Boyle handles this tough sequence expertly, never lingering too long on that which we really don’t want to see, but keeping our attention focused long enough to comprehend what Ralston had to do. This pivotal sequence is well directed, acted, and edited. Boyle’s skill raises the material beyond exploitation to something more thoughtful and poignant.
This could have been another TV movie ripped from the headlines (like the movie about the Chilean miners that is set to be release in December!), but Boyle turns it into a reflection on how people are increasingly disconnected from one another even as the internet, satellites, and mobile phones appear to bring us closer together. None of these things would have helped Ralston. Indeed what would have helped him more than anything was a true feeling of connection with another person, someone he would have told where he was hiking for the weekend. But as it is he told no one where he was going and left no notes. He felt invincible because he is a product of a world that privileges independence to an almost selfish degree. Other dufuses get trapped like that, not Aron Ralston. He knows because, as he explains to his parents in a video message, he volunteers to search for missing hikers all the time. The irony is so obvious that he can’t help but laugh. He also knows no one will come looking for him all because he thought he was a superman, above the need to leave a note.
There is a great flashback in which Aron remembers a breakup he had with a young girl (one he has been thinking about a lot at the bottom of the canyon). She storms out on him during a basketball game. Boyle has been throwing images of crowded places at us from the beginning of the film, but this one packs a punch as the girl stops and looks back at the unresponsive Aron Ralston. She simply tells him he will end up alone. An overhead shot pulls back showing Aron sitting next to an empty seat, but surrounded by hundreds of people, people who don’t know him, can’t help him, and won’t comfort him. They are near, but they may as well be hundreds of miles away. This is a realization Aron comes to only during his ordeal as he realizes his failure to cultivate relationships with women, friends, or his family put him where he is, not the boulder.
This isn’t a lesson reserved for the over-confident outdoorsman. I suspect most of us take many of our relationships for granted. Some prefer to spend time with television, movies (self-aware gulp here), chat rooms, texting, Facebooking, or any number of activities that give us the illusion of increased connection but mostly isolate us even further. I once sat in a restaurant here in Los Angeles and watched a table of four people for close to an hour. There wasn’t a moment when at least two of them were either talking on the phone or texting, ignoring those sitting directly next to them. At times all four of them would be furiously punching texts into their phones or giggling mindlessly on a call. For Aron Ralston, he derived a sense of superiority from the fact that he wasn’t one of those goofballs anchored to their phones. His love was (and continues to be) nature, but it served the same purpose. His treks out into the wilderness may be fun for the moment, but the way he conducts them completely alone also alienates him from the people in his life and society as a whole.
It doesn’t have to be this way and, luckily, Aron gets the chance to reform his ways and reconnect with the people around him, including a new wife and child. I hope audiences for this movie, attracted by the sensational subject material and/or James Franco’s super sexiness, will be inspired to think about how they have ignored those who should be closest to them. The rousing final scenes of the movie certainly remind us that no matter how smart, how strong, or how determined we are, we all need someone’s help sometime.