A kind of Eat, Pray, Love for men

Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours combines gorno (that arm-hacking scene) with a tale of spiritual awakening aimed at blokes.

Graham Barnfield

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‘We were going to make an action movie in which the hero can’t move’, said director Danny Boyle of his latest movie 127 Hours, treating its completion as something of a challenge. Boyle needn’t have worried; heading a team drawn from his earlier productions, he delivers a punchy, convincing and watchable piece of work. (Rodrigo Cortés got there last year with Buried, a taphephobic thriller trapping Ryan Reynolds in an underground box. And film purists will say Hitchcock did it with Rear Window.) Fortunately, cinematography and sound design help to create enough variety around likeable protagonist James Franco for the movie not to seem like being trapped in a canyon for 127 hours.

Adapted from Between a Rock and a Hard Place – a memoir by Aron Ralston – the film concerns the five-day period when, following a freak accident, a young climber’s right hand was pinned by a falling boulder. Since no one knew of Ralston’s whereabouts, starvation and dehydration loomed even though the pain of the injury had subsided. In print, Ralston’s involuntarily immobility is an opportunity to reflect on his past life and mistakes; the movie uses condensed flashbacks, which mean Ralston’s personal reflections seldom displace the more practical issue of survival. Despite these differences, book and film alike act as unwitting barometers of certain changes in society’s values.

The opening images reveal huge crowds on the move, combining what could be footage left over from Slumdog Millionaire with a basketball game at Utah Jazz’s EnergySolutions Arena. Quite deliberately, this creates a contrast between the heaving multitudes of modern life and the solitary virtues of the wilderness. By showing rather than telling, Boyle lets us work this out by ourselves – which comes as a relief, compared to equivalent passages in Ralston’s autobiography. In both film and book, the central narrative – trapped man has to go to extremes to escape – grabs the imagination.

Ralston’s memoir shows him embracing the outdoor life and abandoning a conventional career. Trained as an engineer, he focuses on the weekend – athletically hiking and attacking canyons and mountains with vigour – until the weekend’s activities take priority completely. Eventually Ralston downsizes to working in a climbing gear shop and as a rescue volunteer because that is what he wants to do: ‘because it’s there’ is the rationale for his outdoor activities. ‘Climbing fourteeners in the winter by myself wasn’t just something I did; it became who I was’, he writes.

Yet his transformation also involved chewing over the dubious ideas of The Monkey Wrench Gang author Edward Abbey (1927-1989), and explaining how the wilderness trumps humanity every time. For instance, he writes: ‘In the willowy thickets of Mount Evans’s west bowl, I almost stepped on a snow-white ptarmigan that cooed and hopped out of my way at the last instant. Bending down to the bird, I fell into a trance in its ink-drop eyes. The universe expanded: neither of us moved. I felt a connection with that little puff of feathers on its matching snow pillow that seems to surpass my bond with my own species. With our coexistence in the wintry landscape, we shared more than I did with the other humans who would never journey into this world.’

Ralston writes of human estrangement from nature, all the while revealing his estrangement from other humans. For Boyle, there’s no need to spell this out as ploddingly as the book does; instead it is implied, by cutting back and forth between beautiful landscapes and Ralston’s claustrophobic surroundings, or between a crowded screen and the isolated figure cut by Franco throughout his restrained performance.

The protagonist’s estrangement from friends and relatives ends up played out into a half-hallucinated domestic world in which the dying Ralston makes (and videotapes) his apologies. Boyle has been accused of misanthropy before, as in his pseudo-zombie fest 28 Days Later, but here the disdain for humans seems to be more Ralston’s message, whose ordeal could be seen as a realistic personal apocalypse (unlike the fictional Armageddon Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland dreamt up almost a decade ago for 28 Days Later).

It is no spoiler to say that Ralston escaped by cutting off his right forearm. Indeed, among various commentators the shorthand – no pun intended – is to call this ‘the amputation scene’. ‘If you don’t mind, I’m going before the arm’, one squeamish critic told the receptionist at the press screening I attended. Those who stuck around witnessed a realistic looking scene where mobility is regained by hacking through flesh with a blunt multi-tool – one of those steel knocks-off of the Leatherman multiknife, handed out as freebies at petrol stations. Not only are they useless for chipping away at boulders, but, as audiences will see, they are also completely unsuitable as surgical instruments. Given the annual popularity of the Saw franchise, it is not impossible that this gruesome ‘money shot’ will be one of the things bringing people into the multiplexes and scooping up the pirate DVD in pubs, especially since improvements in prosthetics and digital effects are such that surgical scenes have acquired greater verisimilitude in the past decade.

Reports of fainting and panic attacks on the festival circuit, not heard as much since Gaspar Noé’s brutal rape-and-revenge flick

More seriously, the film has the universal appeal of making one ask ‘what would I do in that situation? How far would I be prepared to go?’ For this generation, more distant from the horrors of warfare and taught that the body is a temple, the loss of a hand is about the worst thing that could happen, unless bigger body parts were to be amputated and left under a rock. All this should perhaps prompt some reflection on how body horror got so mainstream.

127 Hours ends – more or less – in a rescue, showing starkly some of the benefits of modern life. A black helicopter gets Ralston out of the wilderness and into hospital, not a snow-white ptarmigan. Accidents aside, Ralston’s commitment to nature (and its capture on film by Boyle and team) is possible precisely because of us living in a developed society, with other people chipping in their skills towards his care and rehabilitation and, more recently, to back up his continuing career as a mountaineer. (In fairness to Ralston, he now plays a part in this process, too, by developing prosthetics and sharing his knowledge of climbing.)

If filmed ordeals, body horror and wilderness worship all combine to make this inspiring tale of survival into a message of the moment, so too does the rise and rise of Ralston himself. ‘My accident and rescue from Blue John Canyon were the most beautifully spiritual experiences of my life’, his book concludes – a kind of Eat, Pray, Love for men. That Ralston stepped out of hospital and on to a treadmill of talkshows and the high-priced motivational speaking circuit makes him quite a typical accidental celebrity for our times.

Graham Barnfield is a terrible climber with a chapter in John Dos Passos: Biography & Critical Essays, edited by Maria Zina Goncalves de Abreu and Bernardo Guido de Vasconcelos and published by Cambridge Scholars. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK))

Watch the trailer for 127 Hours:

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