Aron Ralston doesn't immediately strike you as someone needing to change. Sure he's brash, but
the 2 attractive hitch-hikers he comes across at the start of the movie seem to find that trait more charming than anything else - and once they plunge with him into an beautiful hot spring, infinitely exciting. This is a man who clearly knows how to live his life to the fullest, and particularly enjoys living it while exploring the canyons of Utah. Recklessness comes at a price though - and 15 minutes into the movie, Aron literally finds himself between a rock and a hard place a boulder traps his right arm while he navigates the depths of Blue John Canyon. He will spend 127 hours - and the movie's entire running time - pinned here.
Doesn't sound like the most enticing watch does it ?
What cinematic good could possibly come of this astonishingly limited setup ?
You'd be surprised.
Danny Boyle works with a true life account to craft a rousing story about the triumph of the human spirit, all within the confines of a crevice in a canyon. Ralston is aided by a resourceful demeanor, a video camera to keep him company, and in the movie's most brutal scene, a somewhat dull, low quality knife. I don't consider it much of a spoiler to inform you that his freedom, 127 hours later, comes from amputating his own arm : the real Ralston's story is famous enough, and it really isn't the point here.
No, where the movie soars is when it taps into Ralston's mind as he forces himself to keep it together against all odds; when he soaks in the 15 minutes of sunlight he receives each morning; when he takes comfort from the well-timed flight of a raven above him; when he starts making free-wheeling associations with his past based on his surroundings and drifts into reveries of what has been and what could have been.
Ralston's decided to come adventuring in the wilderness without informing anyone of his whereabouts, because of course, he can do everything himself - he doesn't need anyone looking out for him. As we jog through flashes of his memory, he looks back on a life of independence and letting go in pursuit of his idea of freedom. It comes down to an epiphany - it is his entire lifetime of reckless choices and unwarranted brash individuality that has brought him towards the boulder that pins him down so mercilessly. The boulder is a chance for him to finally become the kind of person that can let himself lean on someone.
The adventure within Ralston's mind is brought to life by an incredibly committed performance by James Franco. The camera focuses unwaveringly on him as he moves through cycles of anger, frustration, resignation, even manic humour, building up to the inevitable choice he must make. The extended sequence of him attacking his arm is the movie's great set piece, and one of the most visceral pieces of filmmaking you will see in a cinema hall for a long time. Its incredibly punishing to watch - but almost impossible to look away. Cutting off that arm is going to push Ralston towards requiring the kind of support he's always thought he can do without, and there's a powerful marriage of acting, visuals and unwavering direction that bring this journey to life.
"I need help !" he shouts at one point, with a tinge of surprise in his voice. Then, once again, loudly, more emphatically - "I need help !"
Its a wonderfully joyous moment.