Imagine for a moment that 127 Hours (2010) wasn’t based on a real life story and that it was a wholly fictional narrative. Imagine how a pitch of the movie would have sounded. “Let’s make a movie about a guy who gets trapped alone in a canyon with his arm stuck behind a big rock. And then stay with him for five days as he slowly withers away and then as a finale he cuts off his own arm to free himself.”
Spelled out like that it really sounds as one of the most forcefully difficult trials to sit through as a viewers. It sounds both dull and momentarily gruesome. Staring at a guy who cannot move for two hours and then watch him mutilate himself, why would we want to see that? And what artistic and/or entertaining merit would such a movie have?
Of course it did have merit, both as art and as entertainment. 127 Hours was a succes upon its release, both in box office and in awards (six academy award nominations). And I myself was equally impressed with the film. It was visually dynamic, inventive, emotionally engaging and really felt euphoric more than it felt shocking. Yes, I did see someone amputate his own arm, but build around that scene was a carefully constructed narrative about solitude, about human connection and about the beauty of not being alone on this planet.
Ever since, the movie is something of a quiet obsession of mine, as I’ve become fascinated with how such a dull-yet-gruesome premise could result in such a captivating film. I started studying the way director Danny Boyle chose to tell his story, how he used editing, non-linear narrative and cinematography to create a dynamic film out of a static situation.
When I watched a great interview with Danny Boyle I was struck by what he said about his approach to the story. At first, real life subject Aron Ralston wanted to focus mainly on realism and push for a factually correct movie that told the story as truthfully as possible. Boyle reacted by stating that he didn’t want to make a factually realistic movie, but an emotionally realistic movie.
Focusing purely on the facts would, indeed, make for a part-dull, part-gruesome movie which the audience probably would find difficult to watch. If, however, the movie would be made from an emotional and subjective perspective, focusing primarily on empathizing with the main character, the story would come alive and the audience would become much more engaged and might even cheer for Aron as he cuts through his own arm, instead of becoming sick.
Looking at the final film you can feel this approach resonating. Though the film definitely feels realistic and honest, it also becomes surreal at times, subjective and almost hallucinatory. Quirky dream sequences intercut with the raw, dull reality as Aron struggles with his lucidity. And when Ralston finally cuts off his arm, we actually don’t see a lot of gore, but through editing, sound and cinematography, we feel every cut, snap and rip. We cringe, yet we don’t look away. The scene finds just the right balance in shock and engagement to let us hang on, much better than I imagine a completely factually correct and graphic scene would play out.
It’s in scenes like these that you start to understand this idea of emotional/subjective truth. And you are pushed to remind yourself that (fictional) motion pictures are an art-form, more than an objective form of documentation. Their power in portraying an event doesn’t lie in the Portrayal of Truth, but in a Truthful Experience.
And then, beyond the climax of Ralston’s ordeal, there lies an entire narrative about a slow descend into madness and desperation, and an escape back to reality, life and love. Such a narrative can’t be told truthfully on film without it being surreal and subjective. So these themes really push forward the more abstract, surreal style of the film.
Imagine how strong of an obsession water becomes for Rolsten after days of not drinking. And then look at the way Boyle focuses on these weird macro shots with cameras placed in drinking tubes and camel bags. How every drop feels like an ocean to us.
Also potent is the way the film increasingly starts using split-screen images that overlap and distorts each other, poignantly portraying the decaying focus and clarity of Rolsten’s psyche. In the final moments before his climatic amputation the screen becomes a garbled chaos of memories, premonitions, double perspectives and hallucinations and it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the unreal.
One of my favorite images comes from such a surreal moment where Aron is slowly starting to lose his lucid mind. He’s been trapped for several days now and is starting to feel as though he is unavoidably dying. More and more his psyche whirls around the feeling that he is alone, utterly alone. He starts to feel it with his whole body, how he shunned social interactions with friends and family, how he has grown to be a complete loner. He starts obsessing over images of unanswered phone calls, broken up relationships, etcetera.
Eventually Aron looks up to the sky and sees the contrails of an airplane crossing the blue sky. Then several other airplanes cross the image, until the sky looks like a monochrome Mondriaan painting.
It is a hallucination, of course, and it looks beautiful. At the surface the shot works easily enough as a visual suggestion of how Aron’s perception is distorting and he starts to repeat images and obsess over everything that moves.
But there is another layer to the shot that really touched me. It reminded me of moments when I myself lay on the ground, staring up at the sky. Often I’d see a plane flying over and that would give me a sense of quiet solitude. I imagined being on the plane and looking down and feeling detached from the busy world around me. The plane crossing the sky was the quiet image in comparison to the relatively busy world I was lying in.
But this shot suggests the opposite. The plane in the sky becomes a multitude of planes and suddenly that is the busy place of motion, life and activity, in comparison to where Rolsten is. His sense of isolation and loneliness is so strong that even this solitary image of an airplane feels comparatively lively. When I stared up at the sky I wanted to reach for the plane to escape the world. In this shot Aron wants to reach for the plane to connect with the world.
It’s this inversion of a recognizable image that really resonated with me and created this emotional reality through which I could personally connect with Aron and get a glimpse of an emotional understanding about how it must have felt for him to be trapped in there for 127 hours.