Some films make you cry, others make you feel like fainting, but they seldom manage to do both at the same time. That is what makes Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours special. The story is Aron Ralston’s (James Franco), a climber who cut off his right arm after five days trapped under a boulder. Boyle recreates it in gruesome detail, amputation and all, but this isn’t Werner Herzog-style “ordeal-porn”—it’s a glossy digital remaster of the original experience, with a thumping soundtrack and flurries of montage building to a euphoric climax.
The premise of 127 Hours could work just as well as a play. It’s like a more extreme version of A Christmas Carol: a man is held under a rock and visited by memories and regrets; his will to live and be good is shown to be so strong that he chops off his one of his limbs to get free. Yet Boyle uses his particular medium so skillfully that by the end it’s impossible to imagine the story being told any other way. Aron’s alternately exhilarated and despairing moods dictate the pace, with rapid cuts, long-range zooms, luscious close-ups and the intricate split-screen sequences all illuminating his state of mind as well as giving the whole thing a satisfying visual consistency.
Make no mistake, though, the amputation is the centrepiece, and when it comes, it’s sickening. Being squeamish, I covered my face as Aron broke his own arm, but I could still hear the pounding soundtrack accompanied by the sound of blunt knife on flesh and nauseated groans from journalists on all sides. Revulsion blended with high-grade feelgood cinema is a strong brew: recommended, even for weak stomachs.