Wednesday, March 09, 2011

127 Hours: A Review

"I can be wilder than the wind
190 miles an hour
I'm in a whole other dimension
Dancing doubles on the floor
You think I'm crazy, a little bit hazy
But I'm stone cold sober"

Stone Cold Sober (2009) by Paloma Faith

There are three things you can do. One, if you are unfamiliar with the real-life story of Aron Ralston - the subject of 127 Hours -  I advice you to stop reading right now (don't even read anything anywhere about this movie or watch any trailers), run to your nearest theatre and see this film because you are in the enviable position of still being able to be experience this without any prior conceptions. Two, if you know the gist of what happened to Aron Ralston, you should still go see this film first because I am planning to delve into quite a number of spoiler-ish details, both historical and in the crafting process of this movie. In case you are waiting for my stamp of approval: Yes, 127 Hours is an amazing film. James Franco, who played Aron Ralston, was quite possibly the most likable and heroic leading man to grace the silver screen in 2010, and Danny Boyle performed the nigh impossible task of making Ralston's tale into something cinematic and truly captivating to an everyday audience.

If you've already watched 127 Hours, read right on,

127 Hours Poster
It's not a subtle film.
I decided to catch this film to escape - if only for an hour and a half - the crushing tension of my final medical school exam. I figured that it would be a cathartic experience to watch some fellow getting his arm crushed under a boulder and ultimately having to amputate it with a blunt knife, on his own, all without the mercy of general (or even local) anaesthesia; because my own ordeal can scarcely compare to that. Besides, I could really go for something in the triumph-of-the-human-spirit vein, since my own immediate future is looking so foreboding and bleak (note: at the time of writing, I was still in the middle of my finals). I think this is going to be my go-to mantra every time I find myself in a difficult spot: "At least I don't have to cut my arm off."

Of course, with films of this nature, one naturally wonders about 127 Hours' authenticity. Here's what the real Aron Ralston had to say about it in this excerpt from The Guardian,

Boyle shot 127 Hours at the exact spot where Ralston had the accident but added some fictional scenes, such as when he splashes in a secret pool with the women he meets before the accident (the reality – helping them with a few basic climbs – was much more prosaic). Ralston was uncomfortable with these at first but belatedly understood that such changes enabled the audience to "experience it in a truthful way" and did not undermine the "authenticity" promised by Boyle. "The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama," he says. "I think it's the best film ever made." He has watched it eight times and cried every time.

I can't talk about 127 Hours without drawing parallels to Buried, another film which featured one actor stuck in one spot for the entirety (or at least the vast majority) of the running time - but in many ways, the two are actually diametrical. Buried is all about the Situation while 127 Hours focuses on the Person, or rather, his Mind. Buried is operates like a mystery which could end any which way while 127 hours is biographical in nature, the ending of which is predestinated common knowledge. Buried is committed to staying strictly in situ and relied on many novel and ingenious contrivances to fold its audience's attention, but 127 Hours made use of every trick in the book to go beyond the premise of one bloke trapped in one place for 90 minutes including using Ralston's thoughts, dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. The average filmgoer would find it far more palatable, no doubt.

127 Hours Oh Crap
127 Hours is not a subtle film. It has a few themes which it pounded home over and over again. They are the dangers of being a loner and over-reliant on oneself, the tenacity of the human spirit to survive at whatever the cost, and don't buy crappy Chinese products. It's the Scrooge story of 2010, kinda like what Up in the Air was for 2009. Aron Ralston is cocksure and armoured with the illusion of youthful invincibility. He decided to go on a weekend canyoneering adventure on his own without telling anyone where he was going. He did not return his sister's and mother's calls. When he was asked by a friend at an outdoor supply store where he was heading out to, he deliberately said he was uncertain when he already had a destination in mind. He's someone who pursues his privacy to his own detriment because when he did not return, no one knew where to look - or if they should be looking at all.

Ouch, cut a bit close to home there.

The film invites the people watching it to imagine themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place (see what I did there?) the way Ralston was and asks if they have the cojones to do the same. Does it require an extraordinary reserve of courage, or merely the will to live which we, as a species, universally share? 127 Hours was rather coy about this but it does portray our protagonist as a resourceful and practical man. One of the first things he did after he was pinned was to lay out everything in his backpack, to see what he could use to free himself. Being an engineer, he devised a makeshift pulley system using carabiners, harnesses and climbing ropes to try and hoist the rock - an endeavour which we knew was doomed to failure. I don't know what I would do in his place, but I suspect I would pretty much go through the same stages he did. And I suspect that I'd cut my own arm off too.

Ralston also compulsively documented everything he did with his hand-held camcorder and digital camera, and two of my favourite scenes in this film revolved around these devices. This first was his mock radio interview with himself where he lampooned his predicament - ripping brutally into the personality flaws which got him stuck there. It was a hilarious sequence in which shit got real very quickly. When you're on your own for 127 hours, there's really no where to look but inwards.

My second favourite scene was right after he freed himself. As he was walking away from his prison, he turned back to snap a picture of his dismembered limb. That's precisely what I would have done.

127 Hours Hand in Rock
Hey, don't pretend you wouldn't have done the same.
I read once that a movie is one-third moving pictures and two-thirds sound. I wonder - would the amputation scene be half as disquieting without that chilling, unmistakable sound of snapping bone? We were treated to it twice because he had to to torque his ulna and radius separately to break them both. After that, he started work with a blade less than an inch long; slowing slicing through the skin, muscles, tendons... till he touched a nerve (literally) and the most distressing, otherworldly noise exploded from the film. If you ever banged your elbow and felt that unholy pain shoot down your arm, you'd feel Ralston because having to slice a nerve must feel a million times worse. Of course, that was just one nerve (the superficial branch of the radial nerve, if I remember correctly). He still had the deep branch of the same nerve, the median nerve and the ulnar nerve (the so-called "funny bone") to contend with, but the film mercifully glossed over those. I heard there were people who fainted watching that admittedly very demanding scene. A. R. Rahman, who collaborated with Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire, wrote an amazing, riff-ey and visceral piece for that entire sequence, and it's one of my favourite tracks of the movie year.

127 Hours Blue John Canyon
Did I mention that this film looks spectacular?
If 127 Hours aimed to give us a taste, just a little while, of what Aron Ralston endured throughout his ordeal, I'd declare it a runaway success. There's a strong, almost fetishistic fixation on water with multiple shots of it traveling through the inside of a drinking tube and sluicing about in a tumbler. I felt parched just watching Ralston eke out his pitiful ration.

Overall, it may sound like a rather harrowing movie experience but it is really quite enjoyable. Honest. Humourous bits are abundant, even if they are of the gallows variety, and there are many engaging meditations on the nature of humanity which just about anyone can identify with. The weakest part has got to be the end when it overdid the cloy - which nauseated me more than when Ralston drank his own thick, yellow piss. Yes, Ralston continued to be a bad-ass sans right hand. Yes, he went on to get married and had a kid. Yes, he appreciated his family and friends more. Ugh. Like I said, the film's many things but subtle isn't one of them.

Glad to be fully-limbed,
k0k s3n w4i


ap said...

oooh my beloved Paloma is quoted! I find your taste in music really really hard to define, lol...... the horrors of 127 hours have been steadily off-putting and now that i know of said consequences of being a loner i may quake in fear everafter(but unrepentent still until a limb is lost i bet)... gotta say i really appreciated your year end list of movies, i downloaded most of them yesterday and watched 3 back to back, Last Train Home is a great find, the amt of movie reccs i can process is extremely limited, by default slantmagazine--- has great year end lists too. try Fish Tank

k0k s3n w4i said...

ap: i own an original copy of paloma faith's debut album do you want the truth or something beautiful courtesy of the sony music people. my taste in music runs pretty much in the not-overplayed-on-radio direction. anyway, i saw fish tank in 2009 and liked it a lot - particularly katie jarvis (mia)who had no acting experience.