dir: Danny Boyle
[img_assist|nid=1368|title=Rock and Roll|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=406|height=600]
Whatever problems I might have had with Danny Boyle’s films in the past, whatever misgivings I might have had dwindled to nothing fifteen minutes into this film. In the first few minutes I was worried that I was going to be watching something closer to The Beach or Life Less Ordinary end of Boyle’s oeuvre, rather than the actually watchable, decent end of the Boylian spectrum (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire).
But then something happened at exactly 15 minutes in, and the title flashed up on the screen, and I realised that Aron Ralston’s (played by James Franco) real story had just started.
And oh holy fuck what a story it is.
That it’s a true story, and a very narrowly defined story, based entirely on the relevant 127 Hours in question of Ralston’s life, would almost make you think that telling this story in movie form would be impossible. Telling it well, at least. Telling it poorly would seem to be piss-easy. Telling it so that it’s heroically bad would take real hack skills, some of which Boyle has hinted at in the past.
Instead, they (all the people involved, like Boyle’s longtime writing collaborator Simon Beaufoy, but especially Danny Boyle, but especially James Franco, but Especially Boyle!) make a lot of good, strange decisions in order to make a story about a guy trapped under a rock interesting.
When I say interesting, that’s not to say that there aren’t moments where I felt frustrated and trapped. But imagine how this poor bastard felt! Isn’t it fair that we, too, experience some of that feeling?
Maybe not. It takes a lot of stretching, a lot of filling to encompass Ralston’s hellish time in torment, but most of it doesn’t feel like filler. It feels like an extension, an elaboration in order to avoid resorting to a cinema verite – documentary style, which the flick totally avoids.
Ralston clearly loves rock climbing and such, and, in the film’s first fifteen minutes, shows himself to be pretty well prepared and skilled in his various free and rope climbing pursuits. An engineer by training, and an adventurer by inclination, he has a reasonably cavalier attitude to his surroundings, but not blindingly so. When the inevitable happens (inevitable if you know anything about the news story from back in the day, not inevitable from an ‘idiot sculling tequila and playing with a loaded shotgun’ perspective), it’s still a shock.
At first, he struggles and screams like any of us would, unable almost at first to believe his predicament, to believe he’s held in place by a big chunk of immovable rock. With the eventual calming down, taking stock, he starts developing a hyper-intense grasp of the problem at hand, and the magnitude of his folly.
At first I found this really curious synchronicity between what I was thinking about what the character could have done or tried in that circumstance, and what would then occur as Ralston tried some new attempt or way of extricating himself from the bottom of the narrow ravine. Seriously, I’d start thinking “Well, why didn’t he try this then, or that?” and then the character would attempt something similar to what I’d thought, only in a more intelligent and technical way, only to have it fail.
I’m not implying any kind of bullshit psychic powers or schizophrenic delusions on my part prognosticating the future: it’s just that clearly the filmmakers anticipated what the audience might have been thinking at given times, and thought about addressing it lest someone’s disbelief rise to untenable and unendurable heights.
Ralston’s solutions and attempts at escapistry are incredibly involved and far more brilliant than anything an ignoramus lazy fuck such as my self could ever have thought up, with the added advantage, on his part, of being possible and feasible. Of course, considering the outcome that we all (that is, people who know the news story but who haven’t yet seen the film) know is going to come, that’s foreshadowed so many times in an almost gallows / cheeky fashion, we also know that those attempts are going to fail. Ralston too, to our benefit, talks to a handheld camera in lieu of having any other character to talk to, explaining how much worse the situation is getting, and why each attempt at release is failing.
It might seem a bit much to use this as a storytelling device (since you can’t really call it a plot device, since there’s no plot – man falls down hole, man gets out of hole, the end), but it’s necessary. Without it, the flick would just be flashbacks and James Franco grunting to himself.
The combination of the two helps to give the character something of an emotional nature for us to relate to beyond the harshness of his present circumstances. As he contemplates how he got to this place at this time, the maudlin turn of his mind re-evaluates his choices in a new, more pessimistic light, and he starts believing that his own self-reliant, self-sufficient nature has pinned him in place more securely than the rock ever really managed.
With that opportunity he gets to express some measure of regret, and contrition to the camera, for our benefit more so than the family members he mentions, usually meaning his ever-loving parents. It works, in the scope of our appreciation, because man versus rock has certain limitations. Man versus himself plucks a few more emotionally resonant chords.
It is a story about survival, I’m not ignoring that. It’s even more than that I guess: it’s about the absolute determination to endure, to survive, to live against all odds, and through genuine sacrifice, to make it happen. That’s why Ralston’s story is even a story known around the world, and that’s why the film got made. As to whether it’s the best rendering of this story possible, I’d have to say so. Short of damning the flick, our eyes and our ears by having someone (possibly Morgan Freeman) narrate everything that was going on or going through Ralston’s head, they make the supremely preferable decision to show us instead of telling us, and it works remarkably well.
As for Franco, who’s virtually in every scene, well, it’s impossible to not feel sorry for the bastard. Sure, I feel bad for what Ralston went through back in the day, but watching Franco getting bitten on the face by ants in order to be as ‘real’ as he can be in this role was almost as horrifying as what comes later.
Oh, and make no mistake: it’s fucking horrible. I’m not going to spoil, for the three or so people worldwide who don’t know this story, how or whether Ralston manages to extricate himself from between a rock and a harder place, but I can tell you now that I nearly passed out from watching it. In fact, I’ll be honest, I’m one of that small percentage of the viewership whose bodies and minds can’t differentiate between images of bodies undergoing major traumatic events (like surgery, disease or violence) and the real thing: both and either make me sick to the walls of my stomach and cause my fight or flight reflex to kick in, which can also, sometimes, lead to passing out.
I didn’t pass out, but I came pretty damn fucking close. The film doesn’t stint on depicting it as realistically as possible, but nor should it have. What Aron went through was horrifying, and, if we’re going to take the time to buy a ticket to be entertained by watching a film about what he went through, then the very least we owe him is a understanding, a very visual understanding of just what he had to do in order to survive.
That poor bastard. My heart is filled with admiration for Aron Ralston, for James Franco choosing to play such a genuinely difficult role, and for Boyle and co. making what I would have thought was an unfilmable film. Before seeing this flick there’s no way I would have thought such could have worked as anything except a documentary. Thankfully, they didn’t go that way.
Don’t let my admiration fool you: it could be extremely tough going for any of you, or it could be the most boring thing you’ve seen since the invention of cinema, or it could be both. For me, at least, it was pretty interesting.
8 times if only he’d thought ahead and brought a crane with him out of 10
“This rock...I've been moving towards it my entire life.” – 127 Hours