Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

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.


  1. Even though I know, as a climber yourself, you just might be a little biased here, I'm very impressed by your review. It makes me want to see this film in spite of the graphic amputation scene. (I confess, I will probably close my eyes or use those three minutes to make a quick trip to the ladies room, but....)

  2. Thanks for the review. Working up north of Toronto in the summers as a teenager, I've seen young kids get lost in the woods. They've always been found, but the experience for all involved was terrifying. I will definately see the movie.

  3. I love your review--personally I couldn't watch it--knowing about that scene--but this review is top-notch!

  4. It was a harrowing tale at the time that it happened. Seeing it from his perspective would be an incredible story.

  5. Wow, I hadn't even realized this film was out. I know the story from the news but hadn't heard it was made into a movie. And I love james Franco, so the fact he's playing Ralston is even more incentive to see it.
    SOunds fantastic ... and I'm sure very moving.

  6. Sounds like a great movie...I'm with Norma though...I'd probably close my eyes when that scene comes up.

    However, I don't know if I could do that if I were trapped...I just don't know.

  7. Okay, I'll have to move this movie up in priority to watch.

  8. How have I not heard of this film? I love Danny Boyle, too. Thanks for the review, William.

  9. Thanks for stopping by my blog...

    Wonderful Review ! great writing you pulled me right in. I can tell you really enjoyed this movie.
    I must agree with your review of Danny Boyle and James Franco, I think they are both talented.
    The problem I have is removing myself from the real life problem of this movie.

    I now live again out in the wild wild west after living many years along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and if there is and could be a common denominator in many of the people lost or who put themselves and others in danger it is going off alone not tell anyone or thinking they are above the basics rules of being a smart hiker, swimmer or boater or in our area add temperature and flash flooding.
    I am of course very happy and relived he is safe and very relived he did survive for his family but we who live out in the wild see this happening all the time.
    My brother was the head of the Law Enforcement and Rescue of the four southwest region of the USFS and what he could tell you about people and the trouble they found themselves in goes beyond understanding.
    We all make mistakes, for me too many to count everyday, but no matter how good this movie is I think I'll pass.

    Just my take on this movie I hope you don't mind my comment on the movie but I am glad you liked it and if as I have read the comments you are a hiker, climber you bring to the review your life experiences too.
    Fabulous !

    cheers, parsnip

  10. I really want to see this one.
    Hmmm...I'm thinking this could be a good guest post on my blog. Would you be cool with that?

  11. Thanks! I'll post it tomorrow! I'll link back to your blog.


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