When it’s on: Wednesday, 18 April 2012 (9.00 pm)
In April 2003, Aron Ralston was walking through Blue John Canyon in Utah when an accident found his right arm pinned against the canyon wall by a dislodged boulder. Surviving for five days, alone in the wild and having told no one of his whereabouts, Ralston realised ultimately that he was going to die there, unless he could amputate his own arm. Sure enough, the only tool he had in order to perform this amateur surgery was a cheap, blunt knife, but as his deprivation and delirium took hold, it stopped being a matter of choice…
Ralston’s experiences in the canyon led to him becoming GQ Man of the Year and a compelling motivational speaker, relating how the prospect of being free and seeing his loved ones put a smile on his face as he was cutting off his arm. The story has become a bestselling book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and in 2010 was made into a film, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco.
127 Hours is one of those strange viewing experiences where you go into it knowing exactly what happens. The publicity surrounding the film outlined Ralston’s story in full, so it’s a bit like Titanic in the sense you go just to see the main event. In this instance it’s the messy amputation, an operation you know will be as visceral and drawn out as humanly possible. It’s something I watched through my fingers the first time around. On the second viewing I forced myself to look more closely and was stunned by how little is actually shown. My mind had filled in the gaps; sound effects, build-up and tension did the rest. It’s perhaps the closest I’ve come to being in one of those 1960 audiences watching Psycho and swearing afterwards that they’d seen deep cuts and much more of Janet Leigh than her torso.
In between the arm trapping calamity and Ralston’s self-mutilation, he loses his mind in the canyon, draining his meagre water supply slowly and letting memories and visions take over. These become steadily more unsettling and scary, a reminder that few directors cover this metaphysical stuff as well as Danny Boyle. Mark Renton’s horrific experience of overcoming his addiction to smack in Trainspotting. Richard losing himself to Vietnam-inspired fantasies in the jungles overlooking The Beach. And now this, long patches of the film relying on Ralston’s inner monologue to fill in the hours and the premonition that gives him resolve to lose his limb.
It’s compelling and never dull, thanks in no small part to the scintillating work put in by James Franco who was Oscar nominated for Best Actor. The film was on the Best Motion Picture shortlist, losing out to The King’s Speech, and whilst it might not really have been the finest choice facing the Academy, it’s disappointing to see them once again go for the safe bet with a title that reaffirms the human spirit, because 127 Hours is edgier, slicker, more traumatic and it’s stayed in my mind far longer.
127 Hours: ***