Saturday, November 27, 2010
The Will To Live
A friend of my family from northern Ontario once saw a man stumble out of the woods onto his property, frantic and dishevelled, utterly terrified. He had been lost for merely an hour. Had he been lost for a night, he'd have probably been found dead. It's a hard fact of life: if you're lost and you panic, you're going to increase your odds of dying. If you stay calm, keep your head, and focus on the problem at hand, you've got a good chance of seeing home again.
In 2003, climber Aron Ralston took a trip into the canyons of Utah. The ordeal he went through was widely reported at the time, and later Ralston wrote about it in the book Between A Rock And A Hard Place. Now director Danny Boyle has given us the film 127 Hours, starring James Franco as Ralston.
The first impression Franco gives us is of a man with an exuberance for life. Both in the book and in the film, Ralston comes across as an experienced outdoorsman. He loves getting out into the back country, exploring the wilderness. On this trip, however, he makes a couple of critical mistakes, which he deeply comes to rue. He goes off without telling anyone his plans, or when to expect him home. And when he comes across two women hiking in the canyon he visits, rather then leave with them, he chooses to explore further on his own.
Most people go into this film already knowing what happened to Ralston. A misstep in the tight canyon sends him falling, and a boulder comes loose, pinning his hand. And so Ralston is trapped, with no one knowing where he is, and we the audience are trapped with him. Doyle places us right there, face to face with two fears: being trapped and dying alone.
Ralston attempts to move the rock, first with his own strength and then with the equipment he has at hand, but has no success. He realizes how much trouble he's in. He has little food, little water, and he knows full well how long he might expect to live if no one comes across him. He understands that it might be days before anyone realizes he's even missing. In the days that follow, Ralston speaks to his family through the video camera he has on hand. He suffers. He hallucinates. He edges ever closer to death. And the audience can't help but feel a deep empathy for him.
I was reminded watching the film of a similar story, documented in the book and film Touching The Void. Climber Joe Simpson, presumed dead on a mountain in South America, his leg badly broken, dragged himself off the mountain to base camp, despite the pain, despite the reality that he shouldn't have been able to do so. He and his friends tell their story while actors reenact the tale, and Simpson tells us that at the end, he was convinced that he was going to die, but he didn't want to die alone. He wanted to be with someone when he went. That need is repeated in Ralston's experience.
Ralston is cut off from the world, and he knows he's going to die, alone. Finally, in a moment of clarity, he realizes what he has to do to escape, and as unthinkable as it is, he does so without reservation. The amputation scene is graphic. Don't go into this film with a full stomach. Still, it's an essential scene. Ralston takes his fate into his hands, driven by the primal need we all have to survive.
The film is outstanding. Doyle, a strong director with a varied group of films to his credit, brings us right into the situation. Another director might find the notion of a camera being confined in a small space for so long to be a daunting process, but Doyle rises to the challenge and succeeds. He's given us a film that makes us think, raises some tough questions, and ultimately uplifts the audience.
And the Oscar should just be given to James Franco right now. His performance is that good. Franco is one of those actors who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, and he's in fine form with this role. We feel deeply for our protagonist as his ordeal progresses. Franco proves adept at conveying an expression that haunts us during the ordeal. His hallucinations and one way speeches to his family during the ordeal are heartbreaking. And he captures the essence of Ralston's resourcefulness, fortitude, and courage perfectly.
This is the best film of the year.