Aron Ralston’s tale of survival is the stuff of contemporary folklore. Ensnared by a fallen boulder for almost six days with little food or water, Ralston resolved to sever his trapped arm using a blunt pocket-knife to free himself and reach safety. That Hollywood has adapted this story should come as little surprise: the victorious against-all-odds narrative is after all, commonplace within American cinema. Although, given the immense publicity surrounding Ralston’s experience – which made news around the globe – the dilemma for director Danny Boyle was always going to be one of engaging an audience already aware of the film’s outcome.
While this is hardly a unique quandary – the same could be said for any number of biographical films or narratives ‘based on true events’ – the reproduction of recent history via film can differ markedly. Frequently the ‘real life’ story is either reproduced within the (already) familiar frame of genre cinema (The Fighter, Invictus), re-evaluates its subject/s or focuses on issues of characterisation (W., Frost/Nixon), or represents historical/personal events through non-traditional formal means (Hunger, I’m Not There). Given the prior familiarity that accompanies such biopic narratives, the emphasis is typically less on manipulating the audience’s anticipation of plot events and more on the means of presentation and the production of affect. 127 Hours is such a film, trading heavily in style as a substitute for suspense or expectation.
Opening with split screen imagery of highly populated social experiences (rock concerts, sporting events, stock market trading floors, public transport etc.), Boyle seems intent on contrasting Ralston’s imminent isolation with the chaos of urban life. The frenetic editing of these visuals lends motivation to Ralston’s wilderness escape – fostering a desire for the quiet solitude of open spaces – while emphasising the tragic irony of his accident: Ralston has told no-one of his intended location, a symptom (the film later explores) of his emotional disconnectedness from other people. Stylistically then, this brief ‘prologue’ serves to delineate the pace and space of the two opposing worlds in which Ralston inhabits. Boyle even delays the film’s title card until the very moment Ralston is trapped by the fallen boulder. Marking out the narrative proper and the corresponding time of his canyon imprisonment, 127 Hours ostensibly ‘begins’ with this accident.
However, rather than consolidate the spatial or temporal opposition established in this opening – the separation of the ‘two worlds’ – Boyle persists with various overt stylistic techniques, rendering such distinctions all but irrelevant. With only the briefest of refrains, Ralston’s predicament is presented in a series of rapidly edited, hand-held shot sequences, each characterised by marked changes in the angle and position of the camera. The result of these stylistic choices is a discernible contraction in the film’s implied cinematic time. Rather than explore the protracted confrontation with death (and the macabre alternative) that Ralston faced – as implied by the film’s title – 127 Hours zips along with the kinetic energy of a music video clip. At best one could accuse Boyle of disingenuous filmmaking. At worst though, the film borders on trivialising Ralston’s experience; reducing it to an exercise in cinematic showmanship.
The singular aspect in which Boyle’s stylistic idiosyncrasies actually work to the film’s benefit (and James Franco’s strong performance) is in alluding to the character’s increasing mental fragility. When, in one sequence, Ralston imagines himself at a party housing a giant inflatable Scooby-Doo, he inadvertently becomes fixated on the character’s theme song, which he proceeds to chant in a kind of manic mantra. This scene shares more than a passing similarity with one from Kevin Macdonald’s excellent docudrama, Touching the Void (2003) in which a seriously wounded climber in the throes of hypothermia falls prey to the repetitive strains of a Boney M song. But where Macdonald’s film isolates this moment of madness as a culminating rupture in his survivalist tale, Boyle undercuts the effectiveness of such scenes through their sheer frequency. Under a tide of sharply edited flashbacks, hallucinations and wish-fulfilments, Boyle enables the audience to forget about the potentiality of a drawn-out death. It’s not so much about putting us inside Ralston’s head as it is taking the easy way out (and allowing the audience to do likewise).
And that’s the most disappointing aspect of 127 Hours. While the film’s stylistic presentation and pacing make for palatable viewing, the avoidance of a substantial exploration (in terms of time, isolation etc.) of Ralston’s situation actually works against any real empathetic engagement with his character. It’s almost fitting then, that Boyle’s treatment of the highly anticipated amputation sequence is much like the film as a whole, briefly shocking and then quickly forgotten.