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9 January 2011

A Farewell to Arm

This post's title may be a pun too far but a) the title of the autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, on which Danny Boyle's new film 127 Hours is based is also playful and b) the arm amputation scene seems to have been the main talking point of the film. The movie is topped and tailed with bright, colouful, loud scenes of frenetic crowds rushing through subways and cheering in stadia. The hyper-reality of it all contrasts dramatically with much of the rest of the film, which is spent in a mostly dark, monochromatic canyon in Colorado.

Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) is a cocky, carefree adrenaline junkie. He doesn't really have time for people in his life because he's too busy getting his kicks from rock climbing, mountain biking and other high-energy pursuits. At the beginning of 127 Hours, he meets a couple of cute girl hikers, who are lost, and shows them a short-cut--and a good time. The "short-cut" entails the three of them edging their way through a very tight crevasse in the rock and then letting go and plummeting into an underground plunge pool, a hundred feet below. Before they drop, one of the hiker chicks says, "But these rocks would never move." Ralston replies, "Well, actually sometimes they do. Let's just hope not today." This would be prophetic if everyone who went to see this film didn't already know what was going to happen.

Later, Ralston bids farewell to the girls, who invite him to a party the following night, although they figure he'll never turn up. Later still, while Aron is scaling his way through another narrow crevasse, the camera focuses on a boulder--much smaller than I expected but clearly heavy enough--which he tests to see if it can hold his weight (affirmative). Of course, this is the boulder that ends up trapping his right arm for the eponymous 127 hours. After exhausting all possible ways of moving the boulder, his food, water and much of his sanity, he eventually comes to the conclusion he will have to cut his arm off if he is to escape. Actually, he tried this a few days earlier but because he couldn't find his Swiss Army knife (we see his fingers not quite manage to grasp it in his cupboard), he only has some crappy, blunt old knife, which barely scratches the surface of his arm. When he first seizes this tool, he starts chipping at the boulder--I assumed he was trying to sharpen the knife (which might have been a good idea) but he was trying to erode it enough to free himself.

During the time in which he is trapped, Ralston records messages on his camera for his family and an ex girlfriend. He apologises for being a shit. He hallucinates and daydreams about experiences past and potential. He regrets all the things about his life that have brought him to this point ("this rock's been waiting for me my whole life," he says). Franco is, of course, very, very good. His facial expressions are exquisitely painful and he does a great job of creating sympathy for a character who, in the opening scenes, hasn't been particularly likable.

Eventually, though, the arm scene arrives and it's not as gruesome as I was anticipating. Maybe it's because after years of Casualty and 999 as a kid (I can just imagine Michael Buerk's grave voiceover, "Aron didn't tell anyone what his plans for the weekend were..."), I've become somewhat immune to such gore. That said, I am particularly squeamish about knees and feet and had Ralston got his leg trapped instead, I might have joined many of the audience members who were covering their face. After the amputation, the rest of the film is a bit of an exhalation even though Ralston still had to get out of the crevasse, abseil down a cliff and walk until he found some other people who could get help before he was safe. And then we see the colourful crowd scenes again, interspersed with Ralston swimming, climbing and hanging out with his wife (who he met three years later) and their child.

Yes, 127 Hours is a good film but I suspect that when the Oscar nominations come out, I won't be backing it as my choice for "best film."

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