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Dave on film: a man trapped between a rock and a hard place

Dave Taylor //November 19, 2010//

Dave on film: a man trapped between a rock and a hard place

Dave Taylor //November 19, 2010//

Colorado resident Aron Ralson is easily recognizable when you bump into him: he’s missing an arm that he had to sever after being trapped by a boulder during a mountaineering accident a few years ago. Astonishing, but is it the stuff of a great movie? In the hands of director Danny Boyle, 127 Hours certainly is, superb, thoughtful and surprisingly intense…

Review: “127 Hours”

Living in Boulder, Colorado, I know my share of adrenaline junkies, people who are not just extreme athletes, but get involved with dangerous sports for the thrill, the rush. Getting hurt is the badge of honor. It’s easy to wonder what motivates these people and one of the things I most enjoyed about the gripping, lyrical 127 Hours is that it’s just as much a film about the self-indulgent culture that created an Aron Ralston as it is about him being trapped in a slot canyon and having to make the shocking survival decision to cut off his arm with a pocket knife.

Director Danny Boyle is recently famous for the splendid Slumdog Millionaire, but he’s been directing films for quite a while, and his cool professionalism shows in this very well assembled movie with stunning David Lean-style long shots and a surprisingly non-claustrophobic structure. As Ralston (well played by James Franco) begins to hallucinate days into his ordeal, the film slowly begins to unravel too, with flashbacks, flash forwards and other narrative devices that help us understand what’s going through his head.

As Ralston begins to realize that he’s going to die stuck half-way down a tiny canyon, his life begins to flash before his eyes, poignant and funny vignettes of a life spent self-absorbed. Ralston comes to recognize that he’s spent his entire life pushing people away, a path that seems destined to lead to his death: he’s mountaineering in the remote Blue John Canyon but has deliberately not told a single soul – even the charming Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) who he bumped into earlier on his trek – where he’s heading.

It’s difficult to construct a film from an incident where the viewer already knows the outcome: Ralston doesn’t die in the canyon but escapes after having cut off his arm. That’s what made him a media celebrity and what made the film worth producing in the first place. But how can you create drama when the outcome is known?

Boyle is a mature enough director, particular when teamed up with Slumdogwriter Simon Beaufoy and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel, that 127 Hours does indeed pull off this difficult task, and I was surprised at just how gripping I found the movie. From the opening scene where Ralston rummages through his apartment, grabbing supplies but not quite reaching his Swiss Army Knife (in a rather Hitchcockesque shot), then hurls his truck at high speed through unlit back roads trying to reach Canyonlands before the sunrise, there’s little chance to catch your breath.

A handsome and personable character, when Ralston catches sight of Kristi and Megan lost in the national park, he runs down a steep slope and offers his services as their guide. But they’re not going to take the boring route to “The Dome” that’s in their guidebook, he has a cool shortcut that involves a scary/exciting drop down a narrow slot into a deep water pool, a scene that’s magical and foreshadows how important water will soon become to Ralston. Their interaction is captured on his camcorder, and it’s later, trapped in Blue John Canyon, that Ralston watches it and finds the girls flirting and talking directly into the camera. As we see again and again, he’s so self-absorbed he doesn’t realize other people are interested in him.

The most poignant scenes are his romance with Swedish beauty Rana (Clemence Poesy) who adores him but ultimately leaves him – in his flashback – because he’s too wrapped up in himself and cannot open up to anyone. Ralston had loving parents and his mother (Kate Burton) continues to check in with him, even as she demonstrates long experience leaving a voice mail message while he’s home, listening to the answering machine. As the 127 hours slowly tick away and he realizes that there are only two ways out of his ordeal – cutting his arm free or dying of exposure – Ralston wrestles with the profound question of why he’s so self-absorbed.

Mid-way through the film, he imagines a tableau of his family and friends commenting on his “supreme selfishness”, then, late into the film, he laughs and tells himself that “this rock has been waiting for me its entire life”.

On the surface, 127 Hours tells the story of someone who was too stupid to follow basic mountaineering safety rules, someone who was so into the adrenaline of a solo adventure that he created his own life-threatening crisis. A climbing buddy would have been able to go for help or even assist in moving the boulder that trapped his arm. But 127 Hours is really about finding the balance between our lives as individuals and our lives as part of a family and community. It’s a tough balance, and it’s a powerful film that can delve into this theme without being melodramatic or banal.

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