14. 127 Hours

Speaking of strange things that actually happened…

My relationship with this film is well documented on this blog, but for those of you unfamiliar with the story: a few years back, I was working as a intern at the film company of a major Hollywood director. While most of my tasks were standard intern fare (making copies, getting coffee, working phone lists), once I won a little bit of their trust, they began handing me the occasional script or book to do coverage on. I would read the piece, write up a two-page summary, and let my bosses know if I thought we should pursue it or pass on it.

 Most of the scripts were dreck, but one of the books they handed me was intriguing. It was Aron Ralston’s Between A Rock and Hard Place, the true story of a climber whose arm was trapped under a boulder.  He survived there for several days before he was forced to saw off his own arm to escape.

I enjoyed the book but thought it wouldn’t work at all as a film. The main character spends almost all of his time trapped against the rock, thinking sad thoughts and panting with thirst. There’s a rescue attempt by his family, but they never find him. Most of the money parts are pretty gross: he drinks his own urine, pokes experimentally at his dead flesh, and finally, y’know, cuts off his own arm. I recommended that my company pass on it. I have no idea if they considered my recommendation at all, but I know that they never made a bid on the rights, and they never made the movie.

Flash forward five years, and 127 Hours is an Oscar-nominee for Best Picture. Ouch.

My ego might have taken a hit from this escapade, and I’ve been rooting pretty heavily against the film from day one (I was recently cackling triumphantly at its scant $6M box office, until its Oscar nod pushed it back into theaters). But today, I have come to praise 127 Hours, not to trap it against a rock and cut its arm off. It’s a good film.

But first, it needs to be said: I was right to reject the book. This movie is essentially unmakeable. Only a yeoman’s effort by James Franco, aided by Danny Boyle’s helter-skelter stylings, elevates the movie from being dull gross-out flick. If the film were in hands any less capable, the story wouldn’t work at all. Most of the critics who’ve rated the movie seem to agree. I’ve hardly seen a review where the phrase “essentially unfilmable” didn’t pop up somewhere. It’s a tough movie to make.

Boyle deserves a chunk of the credit, but this is Franco’s movie through and through, and the whole effort rides on his surprisingly capable shoulders. I’ve always loved Franco and his dopey, devil-may-care persona, but if you’d told me a few years ago that the star of Annapolis and Flyboys (and the director of The Ape!) would be the Oscar-nominated lead of an Oscar-nominated film, there’s no chance in hell I would’ve believed you. But Franco is perfect here, so comfortable in the skin of the solitary, self-reliant hiker that you feel almost as if it’s the first time he’s ever really played himself. Keeping the audience’s attention for 85 minutes while flopping uselessly against a rock is no small feat, and there’s only a handful of actors out there who could manage the role the Franco played here. And… dare I say it?... maybe none who could do it better.

That said, 127 Hours is solid but a touch unremarkable. The film’s a little slight, and Boyle’s frenetic search for meaning in Ralston’s life – ex-girlfriends forgotten, siblings ignored, parents estranged – all seem a touch desperate in their shouts for your rooting interest.  None of the relationships really sticks, not in the way that Franco’s bid for survival just for survival’s sake seems to. When the money scene hits and he makes his final, desperate push for escape, it seems more obligatory than it does earned.

As for the arm-cutting itself? I wasn’t bothered by the unflinching nature of the nature of the scene – in fact, having read the book, I felt they could have gone much further – but then I’m rarely bothered by appropriate violence. The scene called for a wholehearted dive into flesh-ripping and bone-breaking, and once I know to expect something, I don’t have any problem with the filmmakers going at it whole hog. Considering the nature of the film, I’d be disappointed if they did anything less.