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127 Hours shouldn’t have worked, but here’s why it does

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In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

On paper, hiring Danny Boyle to make a movie about Aron Ralston didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Ralston’s incredible true story is a study in stasis—the film is called 127 Hours, because that’s the length of time he was pinned to a canyon wall by a large boulder, unable to move. In theory, this material would be best served by handing it to a director with a claustrophobic visual approach, so that viewers feel as trapped and helpless as Ralston did. Instead, the job was entrusted to Boyle, one of the most hyperactive filmmakers on the planet, who didn’t alter his signature style one iota to accommodate the movie’s immobile protagonist. In this context, dialing everything up to 11 was aggressively counterintuitive, crossing the line into “so crazy it just might work” territory; by and large, Boyle succeeded in pulling it off. His hurtling camera and desperate cutting (foreshadow) reflect Ralston’s frenzied mental state, allowing James Franco the freedom to give a largely silent, internalized performance. 


The film’s most memorable scene, however, taps into Ralston’s psyche much more directly. Several days into his ordeal, before he figures out how to break the bones in his trapped arm (allowing him to amputate it), he records a farewell message to his family on the video camera he carried with him, assuming that he’ll soon die in that spot. According to the real Ralston, that actually happened—indeed, Ralston has said that 127 Hours is “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama.” Nonetheless, it’s relatively safe to say that the imaginary talk-show appearance—also delivered to the video camera—that immediately precedes Ralston’s farewell message is an invention. This surreal bit of black comedy arrives from out of nowhere, in the middle of an otherwise scrupulously realistic film, which is precisely what makes it so effective. Like Boyle’s energetic style, it’s an example of how doing the opposite of what seems “correct” can yield startling results.

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Boyle co-wrote the screenplay for 127 Hours with Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire), and they craftily use this scene to sneak in some necessary exposition. Ralston occasionally talks to himself after getting trapped, which seems entirely plausible—I certainly do that sometimes when alone, in much less dire circumstances. All the same, they probably didn’t want to turn the movie into an endless monologue, or soliloquy, or whatever one might call that sort of running self-commentary. The morning-show fantasy allows them to make sure the audience understands that nobody is coming to rescue Ralston, so that his eventual decision to hack off his own arm is at least somewhat comprehensible. These are all thoughts he surely had while stuck there, going over his options and the likelihood of his impending death; putting them in a Q&A format, with Ralston playing both incredulous host and sheepish guest, was an inspired idea, employing gallows humor to hide any clunkiness. 


Admittedly, it’s still a little clunky. 127 Hours’ biggest flaw is the way that it pounds its Aesopian moral into the dirt, emphasizing at every opportunity that no man is an island and that Ralston nearly died, because he failed to communicate with the people he loved. That gets hammered home again here, as Ralston turns viciously on himself, mocking his status as a “self-proclaimed American superhero” and identifying his location as Loser Canyon, Utah. Franco takes Ralston’s self-loathing over the top as the morning-show “host,” which paradoxically reveals the intense self-pity Ralston is feeling at this moment. His goofy expressions of disbelief at the stupidity he’s hearing (from himself) make the life lesson being imparted feel significantly less preachy. It’s not exactly subtle work, but subtlety isn’t what’s called for, and Franco (who was Oscar-nominated for this role) has enough fun with the back-and-forth to keep the scene from turning maudlin, which would have been a disaster.

Boyle’s most interesting choice, though, was to set this scene entirely inside the canyon (apart from the quick pop-up image of Brian, a guy from work). 127 Hours features plenty of flashbacks and reveries—we see Ralston imagine a giant inflatable Scooby-Doo he’d been told about, for example—so there’s no reason the morning show couldn’t have taken place in a television studio, thereby signifying that it’s happening in Ralston’s imagination. Instead, Boyle shoots it as if Ralston is really performing this bit right there underneath the boulder, capturing him from several different objective angles (including one from behind Ralston that shows his face in the camera’s viewfinder). That doesn’t make the scene any less of a fantasy, and I don’t think viewers are meant to believe that it genuinely occurs as shown. Boyle has something craftier in mind. The entire scene builds to a simple yet very powerful effect—one that would have been negated by explicitly placing the talk show inside Ralston’s head.

The scene begins with Ralston popping up into frame, as seen through the video camera. That’s necessary to establish the camera’s presence. Once Ralston starts playing both Host Aron and Guest Aron, however, we see Host Aron entirely in “exterior” shots (which is to say, from outside the camera, in high definition), while Guest Aron appears only as a low-res figure within the camera. Boyle and his editor, Jon Harris, carefully avoid match cuts during most of this dialogue, often cutting from Host Aron to Guest Aron much faster than Ralston could realistically change his expression or posture. So at the end, when Host Aron sarcastically says “Oops,” it’s subliminally jarring to see a match cut to Guest Aron, still with the sarcastic look on his face and pulling his head back as Host Aron had been doing an instant before. The two personalities suddenly merge, and it’s in the void created by this sudden merger that Ralston says goodbye to his parents—a tender, heartfelt message that wouldn’t have been nearly as poignant had it not been immediately preceded by several minutes of self-loathing snark. On paper, the juxtaposition shouldn’t work. That’s why movies aren’t created on paper.