127 Hours: Between Your Seat and a Hard Place
Published on November 5th, 2010 | by Jonathan Stromberg1
“127 Hours,” the adaptation of Aron Ralston’s excruciating escape from certain death in the Utah desert, is Danny Boyle’s most committed return to the rock-n-roll film since “Trainspotting” and is everything one might come to expect from the prolific auteur. The movie is always engaging, and carefully written. On the other hand, it’s also predictably Boyle. The problem with it, from an artistic perspective, is that the style of the film is a bit shoehorned when it comes to what is essentially a very limited biopic.
The three basic paradigms of drama—myth, tragedy and comedy—all fail to contain the chaos of real events. It requires no explanation to say that in order to depict real events in a film, they must be dramatized. Unfortunately, life resists this kind of reduction. In “127 Hours,” Boyle strikes a very diplomatic balance between these two concerns, which keeps the film within the bounds of Ralston’s memoir while keeping the narrative compelling. What fails to connect, though, is Ralston’s status as protagonist. Entertaining though the film is, this basic unclarity keeps the drama from being truly fulfilling, and, paradoxically, keeps the film from feeling true. If Ralston’s Hollywood ending really happened, why do I feel cheated by seeing it?
The reason, of course, is that it’s not really a Hollywood ending at all. Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay frames the story mythically: Ralston’s hubris, naïvety, and bad luck, get him trapped under a boulder. After exhausting his supplies, and options, he monologues to his video diary his realization that he relies on others. He regrets eschewing his friends and family for solitude and self-reliance and admits his own frailty in the face of nature’s awesome and uncaring whims. In doing so, he grows—in Hollywood parlance—as a character and realizes to escape death, he must sacrifice his trapped limb. Thus, Ralston the hero saves himself. This makes for a great story, and likely a great memoir, and a screenplay that writes itself. Unfortunately, these things actually happened. In real life, events are more complex than in myths.
Ralston doesn’t grow so much as faces the reality that his hand and forearm are all but dead and rotting. All the water and food he could carry wouldn’t have stopped gangrene from killing him. Even if he had managed to move the rock that pinned him, Ralston’s arm was doomed. The real conflict—Ralston’s internal conflict—which neither the script nor James Franco’s performance entertain, is whether Ralston would be willing to do the deed himself. Whether or not Ralston hallucinated himself into revelation on the eve of his amputation, he saved his own life solely by admitting that he wanted to live, no matter the pain.
The near tragedy of Aron Ralston is that he didn’t come to these terms three days earlier. Yet, in the apparent service of drama, this significant personal conflict is subtextual at best. It begs the question, is Ralston a heroic character at all? The film portrays him as a giddy daredevil, but also as something of a nerd. The flashbacks to his childhood seem to indicate his adventurousness being a kind of compensation for earlier awkwardness. He’s also an engineer who appears to work in a outdoor equipment store. The film doesn’t spare us these details, nor does it explicate them. They flavor the character in a way that Franco neglects to indulge, which makes them all the more interesting. A thoughtful viewer might wonder at Ralston’s desperate admission, “this rock has been waiting for me my entire life.” Perhaps gross hubris is too simple an explanation for his suffering. Perhaps he is instead a kind of addict fixing on the power he asserts on nature and haunted by social and emotional powerlessness inside.
If “127 Hours” were a tragedy, Ralston would have died in that canyon. It wouldn’t be factually true, but it would be dramatically honest. The causal relationship between flaw and failure would be intact. If the film were a comedy—a dark one—Boyle would have had to explore Aron the antihero, playing him up as the faux-bro cum trapped coyote. Some morbid imagination still waits to draft a play where Ralston gleefully hacks away his limb. But Boyle, and perhaps Hollywood dictum, settled on a heroic portrayal. In doing so he denies essential elements of what make the anecdote fascinating in service of the dramatic structure they adopt. At other times though, Boyle convolutes the story with dead ends like the younger girls Ralston meets on the trail, or the ex-girlfriend visitations in his dreams. These forks beg of the viewer, “what is this movie about?” even when themes of the story couldn’t be clearer. By obligating himself to a degree of fidelity to Ralston’s memoir, Boyle undermines his own drama.
Boyle’s rock-n-roll aesthetic also clashes with Ralston’s characterization. Comparison between “127 Hours” and “Trainspotting” are inevitable on this point. The film’s nonstop soundtrack and frenetic graphic treatment beg for a character with the hard-living romanticism of Renton and Sick Boy. Ralston can’t deliver it because despite his drastically preferable biography—at least prior to the events of the film—he can’t compete with the punk allure of the aforementioned. Ralston belongs to a fundamentally different social context. He suffers no desperate struggle for meaning in an era of social alienation. Ralston as played by Franco alienates himself, as sport, and defines his life by his effortless charisma. He is a middle class protagonist, raging at the world not for its cruelty, but because it’s simply boring. He doesn’t struggle to survive his environment, at least prior to his ordeal; he revels in dominating it. If “Trainspotting” is punk rock, and “28 Days Later” is post-rock, “127 Hours” may be some incarnation of hip contemporary rock. In the moments that style overtakes drama, the film becomes incredibly commercial—and like a commercial. Even, at times, like a music video. The signature helicopter shots whizzing over mesas and Franco’s astonishing stunt double are perhaps the most clearly exploitative shot I’ve seen in Boyle’s oeuvre.
“127 Hours” is by no means a disappointing film. It delivers in all the ways one would expect, and that means if you anticipate loving it you probably will (and vice versa). But when the film wanders, its seams show. The reality of the story and the fact that viewers likely know the ending in advance keep Franco’s Ralston sympathetic but also leave room to pick at the inconsistencies in his performance and in the script. To say that “127 Hours” is Boyle’s best film is to admit to having never seen any of his other films, and much of the recognition this film will receive will owe solely to hype and James Franco sycophancy. “127 Hours” is, however, perfectly deserving of due credit. Boyle should be pleased with his success and move promptly onto a new project, lest we linger too long.