This movie embraces living. Your heart swells as you watch it. When James Franco cuts his arm off, all I could picture was James Stewart racing into Bedford Falls, jubilant, at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. That might seem a strange comparison, but the essence of both scenes is identical; in each, a man scrabbles for his life; each man chooses the ragged beauty of living; they spit, and yelp, and go on, unfinished. Better to be alive. Better, even if your right arm ends in a stump. Because, no matter how obscene it is to see a man sever his arm, it’s nothing like as obscene as seeing him dead. Blood shows proof of life in 127 Hours. It’s the antithesis of a horror movie. Please, don’t be put off if you’re squeamish.
This is the true story of a mountain climber named Aron Ralston. In 2003, while Ralston was clambering over rocks in Utah, he slipped and fell and trapped his right arm under a boulder. For five days (the title of the movie refers to the length of Ralston’s ordeal) he survived on water and his own piss. Then he cut off his right arm. In 2004 he wrote a book about his experience. Now director Danny Boyle has adapted that book into a movie. Aside from a brief prologue where we watch James Franco clamber over rocks and flirt with some fetching female hikers, the movie takes place entirely at the bottom of Blue John Canyon, where Franco drinks piss and musters his fortitude. And then, like Aron, he cuts off his right arm.
I labour over the amputation because it’s the reason the movie was made. It’s also the reason many people, understandably, won’t want to watch 127 Hours. But director Danny Boyle knows what he is doing by showing it. Thankfully, he’s not a sensationalist, or a provocateur. He wants, instead, to make an inspirational movie. Dismemberment might seem an odd starting point, but it’s the contrast that appeals to Boyle: the horror of the act and the victory of Aron’s sacrifice. He gave up his arm in order to live. The movie is unceasingly committed to celebrating that fact. It is never morbid, or ghoulish, or sadistic. It does make you wince, on occasion, but it’s all in service to joy. Aron lived. Why shouldn’t we rejoice?
James Franco is probably the luckiest son of a bitch in Hollywood at the moment. After a dawdling start, where his acting talents often deserted him, he went to NYU for a year and came back the darling of the arts. His debut novel was published this year, and he’s already had his first solo art exhibition in New York. He rejuvenated his movie career with a louche turn in Pineapple Express, and now he proves he can act, definitively. He’s on-screen almost every second of 127 Hours. In his best scene – exhausted, malnourished, on the verge of a nervous breakdown – Franco imagines himself on a talk-show, where he interviews himself. This scene acts as a crucible; Franco admits to the hubris which landed him under a rock, but he doesn’t ask for pity, or lapse into self-hate. Instead, he sees his ego for what it is: a dead weight. He reckons with himself and, in doing so, he achieves the audiences’ respect. You side with him.
A lot of the movie uses dreams to get inside Aron’s head. He imagines several magical escapes. In one, he floats free of the canyon as though gravity had been upended. In another, a raging torrent of water flings him out. Sunlight on the canyon floor makes him remember his father, who showed Aron his first sunrise. And all his family – including his younger self – gather round him, in his imagination, when it comes time to do what will make him famous. Here again, 127 Hours isn’t about the horror of what happened to Aron. It’s about the ardent will never to let go. He pictures his family and he knows they want him alive. Death grasps for him, implacable. But he’s so triumphantly stubborn, Death loses its grip.
We need this kind of euphoria. A story like this connects with people because we all, at one time, get trapped under rocks. Failure, disease, despair… are all boulders. It’s always easier, and less messy, to succumb. Would you cut off your arm to live? In a way, that’s the wrong question. Everyone gets hung up on the pain – the pain! – and no-one thinks about the alternative. It isn’t better to die. Being erased from the world is far worse than losing a limb. It only seems more shocking because you’d still be here. At the end of 127 Hours, you see James Franco with part of his arm missing, and you’re dared to look. Are you revolted? Or do you see the rest of him? Aron Ralston is maimed… but he’s famous for living.