If you’re looking to have a weirdly intimate, traumatic, squirm-inducing time at the cinema in the near future, I don’t think you can do any better than Danny Boyle’s newest film, 127 Hours. It’s the story of Aron Ralston, the man who, in real life and in the film, was trapped for 127 hours in a cave, his hand pinned underneath a giant rock. And the film’s just as claustrophobic and mind-warping as you’d ever want it to be.
(For the sake of talking about this film, I’m going to assume that you’ve at least already read the news stories or Wikipedia articles about Aron Ralston’s story. So. No movie spoilers, but maybe reality spoilers?)
If you know the story of Aron Ralston, it should be no surprise that 127 Hours has sequences that are quite difficult to watch. When Ralston finally engages in the grisly act of amputation that saves his life, it’s gut-churning. The flowing blood is hard to watch, and it only gets harder when he’s rooting around in his own skin and muscles. Boyle’s direction is so mercilessly intimate, so pressed up into the face of the gory action throughout.
That’s part of what makes the whole 127 Hours experience a thing that feels like it has to be endured, not just watched. Because not only are we witness to some pretty intense, grotesque stuff, we’re also witness to the churning inside of Ralston’s brain while all of this is happening. The film has some long hallucinatory passages showing Ralston’s deteriorating mental state, and it does so without losing its grip on the sense of realism. We’re not just in the cave with Ralston, it’s more like we’re inside his head with him.
Another thing that is quite surprising about this film is that it manages to be gritty and realistic to the point of discomfort at times, but it also manages to have some very breezy, very stylish sections without feeling schizophrenic. Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle’s last big hit, had a lot of these slick, stylish sections, even closing with the gambit move of a Bollywood dance sequence. But no matter how slick and fun that film was, at times it spiraled off into melodrama and overwrought style, losing contact with the harsh ground on which its impact was built.
Conversely, 127 Hours manages to be gritty, intense and intimate, but it still gets to have some stylish, almost music video-like fun, too. In all honesty, I’d be happiest if Danny Boyle confined this kind of thing to actual music videos, but these fun and glossy non-cave-centric scenes serve a really important purpose for the cave-centric stuff; it’s those shining, care-free moments of sunny music and laughter that make the grislier sections so effective.
If the film has a problem, it’s that it does sort of coddle the audience a little bit by the end. I can’t blame the film, of course, because coddling is pretty much all we want after what we’ve just sat through. But this particular type of hand-holding (haha) is the type that irritates me to no end.
For example, at the end of the film, there’s a kind of strange montage of “after the rescue” stuff, and it uses a lot of the cheap tricks that I hate so much in these kinds of films. There’s the runty cousin of the voice-over, the mandatory true-story text-over debriefing. There’s the seemingly mandatory shot of the real Aron Ralston, to show how accurately he was portrayed (or something… I never really understood the purpose of this ubiquitous trend in biopics). And there’s even the insinuation that some of Aron’s crazed hallucinations were actually “premonitions.” Ugh.
But that’s really all in the closing sequence of the film. The rest is all really engrossing, really effective cinema. And even though such a good, gritty film deserves better, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a stupid joke like this one: I wouldn’t mind spending a few “hours” of my own with this compelling film! (Sorry.)