Barnum and Bailey combined could not deliver the same showbiz impact as Danny Boyle on a good day, and with this film, he's having one of the best. This is his absolutely assured, tremendously crafted new movie – with an overwhelmingly convincing performance from James Franco. It turns on an act of horrible violence, and yet it doesn't feel like a horror film or a violent one, not exactly. It is based, as they say, on a true story, a claim that is usually the prelude to a fantastically dishonest array of evasions and slippery half-truths. Not here. Though there are a couple of minor embellishments, Boyle sticks to the facts. Or rather the fact, the single, inexhaustibly astonishing fact. I have watched 127 Hours twice, and anxiously replayed its central event dozens of times in my head, and each time I am as comprehensively freaked out as if I had no idea what was going to happen. My gob is smacked afresh.
In 2003, Aron Ralston was a climber and extreme sports enthusiast who one weekend went out hiking in the beautiful, remote Blue John Canyon in Utah. He had told no one where he was going; he had no mobile phone and wouldn't be able to get a signal anyway. He is here swaggeringly self-confident and on even more of an endorphin rush than usual after an encounter with two attractive women hikers who appear to be sizing up the possibility of abseiling into his pants at the party they're throwing later that night.
Ralston's date with destiny begins when he starts a very dangerous canyon climb and his arm gets jammed, immovably, under a colossal boulder. He is trapped. Food and water are running out. But Aron has a small pocketknife with him and now faces some tough choices about what he will have to leave behind. By snapping his arm against the rock and sawing through the flesh with his knife, it should be possible to get out of there in most of one piece. Three-and-a-half limbs out of four isn't bad.
The great thing about the title is that it does not merely refer to the duration of Aron's ordeal – it is specifically the length of time needed for him, mentally, to confront the reality of what he must now do. As played by Franco, Ralston is pig-headed and conceited but also intelligent and likable. You feel for him, and feel with him. When I first saw this at the London film festival, I was reminded of Marlon Brando's crazy sub-Nietzschean epiphany in Apocalypse Now, admiring the tribesmen who had the will to cut off all their children's arms that had received the meddling white man's vaccinations. Yet Aron Ralston's willpower is even more extraordinary. Together Boyle and Franco take us across an existential event horizon.
In interviews, Boyle has indicated that the meaning of this story, its take-home message, is that it made Ralston a better person; he learned that he couldn't do everything himself, and that he should swallow his pride and ask for help a little more.
Well, that could be true. But I think the compelling thing about 127 Hours is that it has no message, it has no metaphorical meaning. Aron Ralston one day cut his own arm off. And that's it. His choice was as terrible and unavoidable as the fact of death itself, which, of course, Ralston's magnificent survival has not modified one iota.
Visually, Boyle's film is compelling and there is a poetry in Ralston's vulnerable, fragile flesh being crushed under the weight of a landmass trillions of years in the making. It is an exciting, touching film, which Boyle brings off with enormous skill. It's a skill for which lesser directors would give their … Well, they'd give an awful lot.
By the spring of 2003, Ralston still hadn’t quite completed the challenge. And now the snows were starting to melt, he’d have to wait until the following winter to pick up where he left off. 'Those mountains contain some of the deadliest snowpack in the world,’ Ralston says. 'And I don’t say that for self-aggrandisement but just to say that’s where I was at in my life when I walked into that Utah canyon back in 2003.’
On Saturday, April 26, without telling anyone his plans, Ralston packed his hiking boots, a hydration system, his backpack, climbing equipment, and, notably, a pocket-sized utility tool, put his mountain bike in the back of his truck and drove almost five hours to a remote part of Utah.
According to retired National Parks Service ranger Steve Swanke, people call the tiny town of Moab the 'end of the world’. 'Well, imagine going to the end of the world and then travelling for two and a half hours more. That takes you to the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead where Aron Ralston began his journey. It’s in the middle of nowhere.’
Ralston was only planning to go day hiking and maybe do some rappelling so he could explore the slot canyons. He’d taken a gallon of water with him – plenty for such a short trip. He’d be back in Aspen by nightfall.
In Boyle’s characteristically slick and fast-paced film, we see Ralston, played by James Franco, cycling through the breathtaking landscape of red sand and shadows. He meets up with two girls out hiking and takes them swimming in an idyllic, tranquil pool hidden in one of the canyons.
But it is after he leaves the girls to continue his hike that disaster strikes. Ralston had left his bike and continued on foot into Bluejohn Canyon. According to online climbing discussion forum summitpost.org, the canyon requires technical rock and canyoneering skills to negotiate. But Ralston was more than capable.
'I was accustomed to being in far, far riskier environments,’ he says. 'So I thought going into that canyon was a walk in the park – there were no avalanches, it was a beautiful day and I was essentially just walking.’
But suddenly, Ralston slipped and fell down the chasm, dislodging an 800lb (360kg) chockstone boulder, which is much harder than sandstone. It crushed his arm and left Ralston pinned against the canyon wall.
He made several futile attempts to chip away at the boulder with his utility knife – but it was already fairly blunt and this just made it worse. That first night, as darkness descended on the Utah canyonlands, Ralston realised just how alone he was.
'If you want someone to show up and help you if something bad happens, you’d better tell someone where you’re going. And of course I wanted someone to know – but I’d made a choice and it was a choice I was going to have to live with.’
But living through this was going to be far from easy. Ralston says the boulder was crushing his wrist so tightly that everything up to his fingertips was numb. 'It’s called compartment syndrome – when the nerves and blood vessels are pinched, so that the tissue goes into necrosis and dies,’ he explains.
He began stabbing the blade of his knife into the dead skin of his thumb. Hisssssss. He could hear the air escaping from the decomposing digit.
'I realised early on that I was going to have to cut my arm off to get free but there was also resistance: I didn’t want to do it,’ he says. 'But by the second day I was already figuring out how I could do it, so in the film you see that progression: trying to cut into the arm like a saw, finding the tourniquet, then the realisation that the knife was too dull to get through the bone. That despair was followed by a kind of peace; a realisation that I was going to die there and there was nothing I could do. It was no longer up to me. All I could do was see it through to the end.’
After five and a half days inside the canyon, out of water, delirious and hallucinating, Ralston had an epiphany. 'I felt my bone bend and I realised I could use the boulder to break it. It was like fireworks going off – I was going to get out of there.’
Ralston managed to use his body weight to violently bend his arm until the boulder snapped his forearm. He then ingeniously used the attachment from his hydration pack – a bendy rubber hose that you use to suck water out of the pack – as a makeshift tourniquet, and began sawing and cutting through the remaining cartilage, skin and tendons with his multitool.
If reading about it is making you feel queasy you may find Boyle’s movie too much to stomach. Each time Ralston’s character attempts to sever a nerve, Boyle uses a loud metallic sound to emphasise the excruciating pain he feels. It fills the cinema and you’re forced to look away.
But Ralston says Boyle has handled it perfectly. 'Severing the nerve severed a direct line to my brain. The central nervous system is right there. It’s graphic, but I think it’s appropriate,’ he says. 'You couldn’t show any less of it and still understand what I went though. Without having to belabour it, the actual amputation lasted over an hour. So I think three minutes on film is just right. It was actually very euphoric for me and audiences have cheered and clapped.
'In the film, Franco laughs maniacally because he’s broken his bone and that’s how it was. I had this huge grin on my face as I picked up that knife to start this horrific thing. It was traumatic but it was a blessing to be able to get out of there.’
Ralston says the process of amputating his arm meant he endured both the extremes of pain and absolute elation, because, he says, he knew that he was closer than he ever had been during his ordeal to being free. He describes the moment when he walked out of the canyon as being reborn, 'because I’d already accepted I was going to die’. Ralston used the small point-and-shoot camera he had with him to take a picture of the rock and his severed hand 'as a kind of “screw you, I’m outta here”,’ he says.
He then made a makeshift sling, and incredibly managed to rappel down a 60ft cliff face to the floor of the canyon. Ironically, this would have been the one and only technical aspect of his entire trip. And Ralston managed it after amputating his arm and being deprived of sleep for five days. Covered in blood, he began marching out of the canyon. A family out hiking found him and called the emergency services.
Captain Kyle Ekker of the Emery County Sheriff’s Department said Ralston’s family and friends had reported him missing the previous day. Although he hadn’t told them where he was going, they were convinced he had gone hiking in that county. 'We started checking the southeast corner of the county and we were just lucky that we came across his truck at the trail head of Horseshoe Canyon.’
Steve Swanke was at work early that morning when he got a call saying a hiker was missing. 'We sensed a great deal of urgency. We threw resources at it real quickly. By 3pm that afternoon we had him located, accessed, and in the helicopter, down into the hospital and stabilised. I wasn’t surprised he survived – he had a strong body, a strong mind, he was in his element and he was technically savvy. He also had a very strong will to live.’
Rescuers tried to keep Ralston awake for the 12-minute flight to the hospital in Moab. When they got there he stunned them by walking into the emergency room on his own.
Since the accident, Ralston has been back to Bluejohn Canyon 10 times – with friends, news crews and with the producers of 127 Hours. They even shot some of the film there.
Understandably, the road to recovery hasn’t been easy. At first, Ralston was determined to carry on challenging himself. Using a special prosthetic arm, he tried ultrarunning (ridiculously
long running races) extreme mountaineering and whitewater rafting. And he was finally able to complete the challenge he’d set himself before his accident. But, Ralston claims, he began to adopt a sense of invincibility; that if the accident in Utah hadn’t killed him, nothing could. 'I realised somewhere along the way that I was just headed back to that same spot in the canyon where my life was on the line,’ he says.
In 2006, Ralston lost three friends to suicide and he says it was a wake-up call; he felt he’d been given a second chance. He wanted to put more time into the non-profit work he’d started, taking disabled veterans climbing; helping troubled youngsters; preserving Colorado’s national forests and wilderness areas. But he also realised it was time to settle down.
'I’d fallen in love with a woman but she broke up with me and I was devastated. Six months later, I went into a suicidal depression from the break-up of the relationship, but I resolved to not do what my friends had done. And so I reached out for help,’ he says. 'Then, in the early winter of 2007, I was at a pub in Aspen watching a friend’s band play and I met this woman, Jessica. She bought me a beer, we started talking and the next day we went hiking.’
They married in August, 2009 and now live in Boulder, Colorado, with their young son, Leo. Ralston says his wife played a huge role in his healing. 'And that’s where I’m finally at today – my life is about being with my family,’ he says. 'This is what’s important.’
At the end of the film, you see the real Aron Ralston together with Jessica and Leo, sitting on a sofa, with the canyon behind them.
Ralston says it’s funny, but even though he didn’t know them at the time, they’re the reason he was able to get out of that canyon alive. 'We have these very fundamental desires for freedom, for love and for connection. And that’s what got me out.’
- '127 Hours’ is released on January 7