When director Danny Boyle announced that he was going to take on the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, I thought he had gone crazy. Boyle’s last film, Slumdog Millionaire, won eight Oscars, including Best Motion Picture and Best Director, and grossed over $350M worldwide.
The world was his oyster, so why would he squander his opportunity by tackling an unfilmable story? If you recall, Aron Ralston was the hiker who survived a nasty fall while he was hiking in Utah. His arm was pinned beneath an 800-pound boulder, and Ralston faced starvation, dehydration, and exposure to the elements.
After five days he made the decision to amputate his own arm in order to escape. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then had to hike an additional eight miles to reach help. Against insurmountable odds, Ralston triumphed, and became a poster boy for the strength of the human spirit. Sure, it’s a compelling story, but who wants to see a movie about a guy pinned under a rock for five days?
My skepticism was shattered ten minutes into the film. I was blown away by Boyle’s ability to take an isolated event and weave it into a lean, taut thriller. This is absolutely one of the best films of the year.
The film hinges entirely on the performance of James Franco, basically this is a one man show. And boy does he nail it. His astonishing performance is equal parts funny, furious, and frightening. It should garner him A-list status from here on out.
As the movie begins, we see a few moments of Ralston’s life before he takes off for his latest mountain climbing adventure. Small details like ignoring the phone when his mother calls, and not taking the time to find his good pocketknife will come back to haunt him over the next five days.
Raltson takes his mountain bike as far as he can, then locks it to a tree to hoof the rest of his journey. He nimbly maneuvers about the landscape with a cocky, surefooted step. He briefly encounters some women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) on the trail and shows off a bit, sharing a secret underground hot spring with the two gals. They splash around and have a great time; Ralston bids them adieu and pushes forward.
The women are the last human contact he has before his fall, where he finds himself trapped with little clothing, food, or water. He knows the area well enough to know that no one will find him. He can’t budge the rock. He’s resourceful as hell, but everything he tries results in a dead end.
The movie is an intriguing look at a man mentally unravelling, trapped in a crevice with only a camcorder and his own voice to keep him company. As Ralston revisits his life events, he records a series of messages on the camcorder. He ruminates about lost loves and family members who are sick with worry. He obsesses over those he has wronged as he drifts in and out of consciousness in the crevice. He has hallucinations, and chastises himself for not telling a single living soul about his plans.
His gradual mental meltdown is utterly believable. Being trapped in such a tight space with your own thoughts is a terrifying scenario for almost anyone, add to that the threat of impending death, it becomes unbearable.
He quickly grasps at anything that represents order; the fifteen minutes of sunlight he can bask in daily, or the eagle who flies overhead at roughly the same time every day.
Raltson is never treated as a hero. His survival is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. He could have bled to death, he could have been crushed, it could have been colder, it could have flooded…the list goes on and on. It seems odd to label someone who lost an appendage as lucky, but that is exactly what Ralston was, lucky. The fact that he was such an accomplished outdoorsman didn’t hurt, either.
The film was shot in Blue John Canyon (Moab, Utah), which is the actual place where Ralston’s harrowing ordeal took place. According to press notes, the location was so remote that the crew had to helicoptered to the shoot. The result of their labor is quite stunning.
Piercing blue sky envelope red boulders and crimson sand. The open expanse of the desert is breathtaking, and gives you a sense of why Ralston loved to mountain climb so much. There were two separate cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak) working on the production to deliver all the visual goods.
As for the story, Boyle collaborated with his Slumdog scribe, Simon Beaufoy, to adapt the story from Raltson’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Characters appear fleetingly on screen through daydreams and hallucinations, and a nifty segment in the middle has Raltson playing game show host as he comes to grips with his plight.
Boyle keeps things interesting by employing some of his patented directional stylings. He uses split screens, bizarre camera angles, and unexpected images to keep the story zipping along. There is not one wasted moment in the entire film.
It’s quite an accomplishment to keep the audience on edge even though they know the final outcome, but this film will rivet you to the screen and leave you a breathless mess. I dare say the movie changes your outlook on life.
To watch a man do the unthinkable because he wanted to live so badly made me want to live a better life. I can’t think of a higher compliment to the film, which is one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I have ever had.
As for the gore you may have heard about, it is mercifully short, so you can hide your eyes for the three or four minutes it is on screen. It is gruesome, but Boyle doesn’t use it in an exploitive way. Don’t let it scare you away from this amazing film.