127 Ouches

A look at the film ‘127 Hours’ directed by Danny Boyle

I was recently reminded of the ordeal that befell Aron Ralston several years ago. For those who don’t recall who he is by name, you would know him as the chap who, in order to save his life, had to amputate his own arm with no assistance while trapped at the bottom of a remote ravine. Like with all things more noteworthy than accidentally dropping an apple on your toes, this story was adapted into a film.

I tend to get a bit worn down by films that recreate real events like this because they often have too much gloss and glamour with just a tad too much artistic license. If an event was interesting enough to make a film about, you don’t need to jazz it up any further! If it does require the addition of an exploding spaceship and a love interest for Jesus to be written in for extra ‘oomf’, then perhaps it wasn’t ever meant to be for the big-screen. A nicely made one-hour documentary would have sufficed.

But there’s a je-ne-sais-quoi about ‘127 Hours’ that lends itself to my sensibility. On the face of things, for those that haven’t seen it, you might wonder how a two-hour film manages to be both interesting and entertaining when it’s about a guy trapped, immobile, in a large crevice. If it was simply a case of ‘he gets stuck, cuts his arm off and survives’ then that would be a pretty short film.

The filmmakers wisely use the gift of time for healthy doses of character study, introspective analysis and back story. Which is one of the truly noteworthy things about this film; it’s a big-budget Hollywood piece, yet it so wonderfully creates a sense of character. No mere two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs who can be discarded the moment the plot deems them expendable, but a rich, deep and insightful exploration of this man’s soul, his drives, regrets and relationships.

When trapped, Aron Ralston, created a series of video messages, documenting his stationary adventure. This idea is integrated into the film as a means to provide the audience with some narrative and dialogue in a situation where there wouldn’t normally be any. One could easily have dismissed this as a lazy device to try and spice up the pace, but since it actually happened this way, we’ll let Hollywood off the hook. The actual videos that Mr Ralston created are a well kept secret. They have never, and likely never will, be released in any form for people to see. And this is totally understandable. If anything like what we see in the film, they’d be a harrowing series of files that chart a man’s journey from surprise and bewilderment, to despair and his acceptance of his likely death. We don’t need, nor want to see that happen for real.

Unlike the ‘Mission Impossible’ films, which have almost constant action from beginning to end to keep people interested, this story has just one key focal point; the one bit that everyone come to the film to see. Like the water-landing in ‘Sully’, or the end credits in ‘Swiss Army Man’, there is just one part that people are really waiting for, that had to be done just right if it was to hold up at all… The amputation scene.

Now, we’ve all seen an amputation on screen at some point. One of my favourites has to be in the quintessential shitty, 80’s monster flick, ‘Slugs’, where a mutant, flesh-eating slug hides inside a gardening glove. When the glove gets put on, a finger is bitten and the man cries out in pain. Instead of removing the glove, he proceeds to hack his hand off with a hatchet and this results in his entire house exploding in an enormous fireball. Admittedly, ‘Slugs’ is a much lower calibre of film than ‘127 Hours’ and thus might have been just a tad over the top, but the fact remains, in one form or another, we’ve seen some disembodied limbs happen at some point.

What ‘127 Hours’ does, is give the event the time and respect it deserves without dwelling on it. It’s not something they draw out for too long, nor is it over in mere seconds. The weight of the decision and the anticipation press down on the viewer heavily and we enter the scene with a sense of dread. Using a mixture of camera and editing tricks alongside clever use of soundtrack, we get a visceral and lightly terrifying amputation, though never so gory or disgusting that it would upset your stomach. It’s very much a case of ‘see it to truly appreciate it’ and how effectively and how sensitively it was dealt with by the filmmakers.

Spoiler alert! He doesn’t die at the end. Not really a spoiler, I suppose, given that most of us go into the film knowing he survived to tell his tale. It’s not the result that makes the story, but how we arrive at the result we already know is coming. The journey the film take us on helps us understand what kind of a man finds himself in such a predicament, how he reconciles his fate within himself and how he has the ability and the fortitude to do the unthinkable.

There’s a couple of moments along the way to help lighten the tone of the film, after all, if it were misery and despair the entire time, it would be almost as miserable a time as watching Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse again… Yeah, I know, any opportunity to have a dig. Sorry, not sorry.

But with an arm and a hand crushed under a rock and needing to survive on the rations he has available, we get to watch him tackle typically two-handed jobs that so many of us take for granted, like opening a packet. It provides a moment where we can chortle, it’s not funny, but it’s the absurdity of the situation that makes it almost-funny. Again, it’s part of the magic of the film that little things like this become so engrossing and entertaining.

Many of us, I’m sure, would say, “I’d never have been able to cut off an arm.” Well, that’s probably true when the worst situation you’ve been in with it is perhaps a bit of pins and needles after sleeping on it funny, I’m going to assume that to Mr Ralston, the thought of dismembering himself didn’t really factor into his plans at any point either. But until someone is really in a position where they are faced with being dragged into a fate worse than death, or even death itself, we become capable of sacrifices we would never have assumed necessary.

As I begin to sum up and close down this article, I feel it needs to be said that there is something incredibly inspiring about the real Aron Ralston. To catch brief glimpses of him in the media, the things he says, his outlook on life and the way he has allowed himself to be portrayed in mainstream cinema, says a great deal about the human spirit. For all the negativity and hatred people have for each other and for all the lazy, feckless loafers who claim the world is too difficult to succeed in, to have an Aron Ralston in the world who can show us that with a little grit and determination, you can achieve just about anything if you have it within you to fight for what’s important, well, that’s absolutely priceless.

I sincerely hope, as I suspect all of you will too when it comes to your well-being, that I’m never in a position to find out just how far I’ll go to ensure my survival. I just don’t know if my drive and determination is strong enough to fight to the extent that Mr Ralston did.

If I do become mortally trapped somewhere, I’m hoping it will be in a Haribo factory. That sounds like a pretty good place to see out my last week alive.


A reason why you should watch it: Brilliant character study, slick production and gives you an appreciation for life.

A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because amputation is still amputation, and ain’t nobody got time for that!

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