There’s been a lot of talk about the scene in 127 Hours where hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) cuts off his own arm. Some people reportedly passed out at screenings. Others were only able to look at the carnage through clenched fingers. Still others so dreaded the scene, they chose to avoid the film altogether.
What people don’t tell you is that, at that point in the movie, you’re absolutely dying for Aron to cut off his arm. It’s basically either arm evisceration or death. And while the scene is grisly and, yes, hard to watch, it’s also a cause for celebration. In my own mind I was thinking, “Do it! Do it!” as poor Aron dug the (dull) knife into his flesh.
I imagine that director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) never considered not showing Aron do the unthinkable deed. In fact, I’d venture to guess that the whole reason he chose to make the film was because of that scene.
After all, we’d all heard the true story of the hiker who fell into the canyon with his arm pinned under an intractable boulder. And we’d all heard that Aron had cut off his own arm. (While I didn’t read Ralston’s book, called, naturally, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, I did see the Tom Brokaw special where the anchor and Ralston returned to the scene of the maim.)
What I never really considered was what it was actually like. Vaguely gross, yes. Brave, for sure. But what did Aron feel? Bone? Tendon? Nerve? Excruciating pain? (Yes, yes, yes, and yes.)
That’s what Boyle wonders, too, but not before he introduces us to a character we find both loveable and infuriating. When we first meet Aron he’s driving to the canyons of Utah. He’s alone, just the way he likes it. There’s a voicemail message from his mother, left unanswered. He’s told none of his friends where he’s going. We watch him whiz through the canyons on his bike—and we see his joy in his solitude. He’s an adrenaline junky loner, fueled by his own intoxicating freedom, his own jacked up ability to navigate the world at will.
Briefly, he interacts with a couple of cute hippie hiker girls (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), taking them to a cool water pit, and showing off his command of the terrain. They all flirt, the girls invite him to a party later, but they suspect he won’t go. Even they can tell that other people are strictly optional in Aron’s world.
Once Aron gets stuck, he recognizes the reality right away. He’s told no one where he is. He’s chosen a remote part of the canyon. In short, he’s screwed.
The film is restricting, but it’s never dull. Aron has a video camera with him, and he films sometimes earnest, sometimes funny testimonials for his family. He’s adept at making pullies and other makeshift survival devices, which creates at least an illusion of action. A few time he hallucinates; several times, he’s stirred by memories, of both his childhood and of a lost love. And through it all, he’s able to maintain his dark humor (“tastes like piss,” he mutters, after drinking his own urine) and a sense of irony about his predicament: He realizes that, at least partly, he’s in a hell of his own creation.
This is whiz-bang stuff from Danny Boyle, who can do visceral intensity like no other director (see Trainspotting for proof) and it’s also a tour de force for Franco, who gives a full-bodied, utterly convincing performance. He is this guy—all gumption and physical verve that gives way to a near crazed desperation. (“Don’t lose it,” Ralston warns himself.)
Aron’s struggle against his confinement is a race against time. He’s run out of food. He’s run out of water. There will be no more urine to drink. He has to free himself or die. So we cheer on his amputation. It’s his ticket to life. How can we possibly turn away?