This year’s Savannah Film Festival has included a number of controversial films. From the NC-17 rated “Blue Valentine” to “Blue Velvet,” this year’s selections have not always been family-friendly feel-good hits.
The festival ended on a note of relief as the lights went up after “127 Hours,” which features the true story of hiker Aron Ralston’s entrapment in a canyon for five days and the extreme measures he takes to free himself.
Relief because the moviegoer, who needed an EMT called after The Amputation Scene, was OK. Relief because The Amputation Scene was over. Relief at the resolution of an incredibly intense 90 minutes of film.
“127 Hours,” directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Millions,” “28 Days Later) is based on Ralston’s memoir, the aptly titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
The film opens with a triptych of images of Ralston’s urban life as he begins his escape to nature, where, upon arriving, he exclaims, “Just me, the music and the night. Love it!”
Ralston’s relationship with nature is an interesting one. He doesn’t seek solitude like Thoreau; he seeks to conquer it, blasting music in his headphones and trying to beat guidebook’s recommended hiking times.
People are blurs in Ralston’s life. Early on, he meets two hikers, played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara. Their scenes add little to the movie, except about 10 minutes and some relief before The Scene.
Most importantly, it shows how he isn’t distracted by these two young women who obviously are hitting on him. He wants to embrace the great outdoors.
Then, after swimming in his skivvies in the middle of nowhere, Ralston sprints off to his next adventure, taking him to Blue John Canyon, where a rock becomes dislodged and crushes his right forearm against the wall.
It’s here, 15 minutes into the movie, that the title appears.
This film lacks the traditional narrative structure. There’s no comic relief. There’s no villain. There’s not really a story arc. All of this is found within Ralston, depicted compellingly by James Franco.
Immobilizing the main character allows Boyle to play with his character and cinematography in very interesting ways. Ralston flashes back to his childhood, past relationships and events more and more frequently as his situation worsens. He gives monologues to his handheld recorder and he never loses his sense of humor. After drinking his own urine, he says, “It’s no Slurpee.” Boyle uses extreme closeups of Ralston’s water bottle, Camel Bak and skin to seamlessly weave in his hallucinations.
At first, Ralston is just an observer in his hallucinations, but as he runs out of water and food, his role changes. He’s seen outside the window the first time he sleeps with his ex-girlfriend. Then his mother’s couch appears in the canyon with him.
Even though time begins to slow down for Ralston, as the minutes slowly squeeze by, the film never drags. As Ralston, and the film lose their grip on reality the film becomes more and more compelling.
Interestingly, pop culture manages to squeeze into the canyon with Ralston. He hosts a morning show segment, featuring himself as host, guest and call-in viewer. The “Scooby Doo” theme song plays in his head. Ralston fantasizes about beverages through vintage commercial footage. Even though he is trapped in the remotest corner of the nation, he can’t escape it.
Perhaps the philosophical core of the movie lies in Ralston’s monologue describing how the rock that is trapping him has “been waiting for me its entire life.”
Thankfully, the film isn’t given to much self-reflection and pity, where it could easily get bogged down. As soon as Ralston apologizes to his mother in absentia, he’s stabbing his arm.
When he’s finally made his peace with the world, his desperation forces him to take drastic measures and cut his arm off.
The Amputation Scene, which, according to the Huffington Post, has people fainting and vomiting in theaters at premieres around the world, isn’t gratuitous.
Uncomfortable? Oh, yes.
But the scene, which ended with the film temporarily stopping and an ambulance being called to Trustees Theater, didn’t cause people to leave in droves.
Everyone squirmed and everyone groaned, but Boyle’s success in setting up a connection with Ralston the previous 80 minutes made the audience stick around.
Applause broke out as he finally wrenched himself free, and everyone laughed as Ralston paused to take a picture of the grisly scene he left.
The film ends so soon after The Scene that the resolution is messy. There’s not an immediate triumphant sentiment. I didn’t feel empowered by the film, just exhausted.
That’s perhaps the biggest letdown of the film. The message isn’t immediately clear, and the overwhelming feeling from the film is relief.
“127 Hours” isn’t, by any means, for the squeamish. But those looking for a compelling story, interesting cinematography and a more than likely Academy Award nomination for Franco, check it out. It lives up to the hype.Contact Ben Wright.