Between a rock and a hard place with Danny Boyle and James Franco
On a Saturday in April of 2003, Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old outdoorsman and mountain climber, went for what he thought would be a fun weekend, climbing the Blue John Canyon in Utah, a remote location miles from roads. This trip was to change his life forever.
Aron (James Franco) takes off that day in a big hurry, grabbing what he can. His Swiss Army knife is at the back of the chest and he misses it. (Danny Boyle”s camera is there and we see it, just out of reach.) He also ignores a call from his mother and lets her leave him a recorded message while he’s throwing his things together; he hasn’t told anybody where he’s going. Driving and singing along in his battered red car, he goes off to the canyons. After parking he rides a mountain bike the rest of the way in — almost 20 miles. He spins out of control at one point and lands in a ditch full of hard brambles, but just laughs and jumps back on the bike. In the canyon area, he meets a couple of young women who are lost (Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara) and before sending them back on their way, takes them swimming in a rock canyon down a thin divide. They invite him to a party they’re giving on Sunday. One of them is clearly taken by him. “I don’t think we figured in his day at all,” she says, wistfully.
All this is merely prologue, and seems a very long time, another lifetime from what’s coming.
As played by James Franco, Aron is a fun-loving and hugely energetic guy, a bit of a loner, the kind who likes to experience raw nature on his own, bold and smart but maybe not very grown up. Danny Boyle’s typically hyperkinetic, visually inventive camera is right with him. What is soon to happen will be a hugely chastening and growing up experience, and the greatest challenge of his life. Climbing down into one of the narrow “slot” canyons, he takes a leap and is caught on the right arm by a big rock that falls with him and wedges there, trapping his arm. He can’t move. He can’t get his arm out. He can’t move the rock. He whittles away at it for five days. Nothing happens except that his arm is turning gray and dying. He is hopelessly trapped and badly hurt. And no one knows where he is.
Some time on Thursday, after running out of food and water and drinking his own urine, without a coat or sweater to warm him in the cold nights, barely able to sleep but having done a lot of soul-searching and remembering, Aron finally finds the desperation, the courage, and the will to do what he has finally realized is the only thing he can do to save his own life. He breaks his trapped right arm in two places above the wrist by violently twisting it, and then cuts through the soft tissue with the only knife he has, a cheap, blunt one that came with a flashlight, also cheap, in a Christmas stocking. This was the sole possible solution because he’d found a couple days before that the blades he had couldn’t cut through the bone of his arm. And he had to leave the arm behind, or die, slowly, of starvation and dehydration.
When he’s done this, severed his hand and wrist from the rest of his body, Aron is free. He’s wracked with pain and covered with blood, but he’s elated. He still has to get out of the canyon. But he is a climber and an athlete. And though he’s exhausted and partially in shock, he gets back down fairly fast. He plunges his upper body into a pool of water and drinks bottles of it. Later he sees people and cries for help, barely able to make a sound. A man, woman, and child come up to him. He tells them he’s cut off his arm. Two of them run forward to get help while the other stays with him. Eventually he’s taken out in a helicopter.
But all that isn’t exactly a description of the movie. While Aron Ralston wrote a 2004 book called Between a Rock and a Hard Place describing the experience in words, Danny Boyle’s movie has no inner monologue voice-over. There is one kind of commentary periodically, as Aron talks into his video camera, just as he really did, making general comments on what’s happening. He manages humor and irony when he puts on a pretend talk show in which he mocks his own predicament. In his despair Aron says a loving goodbye to his parents and sister. But mostly Boyle tells Aron’s survival story not with words but with images, including fantasies, recent memories, and flashbacks to childhood, most memorably one of Aron as a boy videoing his sister playing the piano.
It was, frankly, crazy to try to make this story into a movie — though maybe no crazier than Rodrigo Cortés’ recent movie, Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds, of a man trapped for days in a wooden coffin in Iraq. On the other hand, Aron doesn’t have a cell phone to talk on, as Cortés’ trapped man does — and if he had, it wouldn’t have worked. 127 Hours isn’t exactly a fun watch. Boyle, who likes tackling impossibly challenging subjects, jazzes this one up with all his images, his music, and his lively camera movement. But you still know what’s coming, and when it comes it isn’t pretty.
And yet, if any two people could make Aron Ralston’s ordeal into something you might in some remote way describe as “fun,” Danny Boyle and James Franco are the ones. And however grueling it is to watch this, and to bear with Ralston when he’s stuck literally between a rock and a hard place for more than five days, there is the exhilaration of such survival experiences: that in the end he makes it, and comes out an incalculably better and stronger man. So ultimately this is too good an experience, in a weird way, not to make a movie out of. And Aron Ralston’s articulate book becomes a visual outline for the movie. 127 Hours doesn’t explain everything that’s happening and is right not to. Boyle has translated the events into visceral cinematic language.*
This has been quite a year for James Franco. In Eat Pray Love he played Julia Roberts’ young boyfriend, who gets dumped. In Howl, he played the young beat poet genius Allen Ginsberg. And now this. He’s all over the map, and more power to him.
*(For the real story, in words, there’s a video of Aron Ralston himself describing how he amputated his arm.)
DIRECTOR: DANNY BOYLE
WRITER: DANNY BOYLE, SIMON BEAUFOY, ARON RALSTON
CAST: JAMES FRANCO, KATE MARA, AMBER TAMBLYN, TREAT WILLIAMS
RUNTIME: 94 MINS
COUNTRY: USA, UK