Many years ago I got stuck in a lift. The lights flickered, the whirring of the wires ceased and silenced and the doors remained closed as the small metallic compartment ground to an unexpected halt halfway between the 3rd and 4th floor of the hotel I was staying in at the time.
Almost immediately I felt the cold shiver of sweat as every pore on my body went into panic stricken overdrive. My heart rate sped up then slowed down then sped up again sending me into a vertiginous spiral of giddiness and terror. I was trapped and in all likelihood, I was going to die. Slumping against the side of the lift I reached out and banged the walls, thumped the buttons and contemplated adopting the foetal position and sobbing.
The lift, as though embarrassed into action by my overt lack of courage, shook and rattled into life. The lights came on, the wires whirred and we reached the 4th floor whereupon the doors opened into the hallway of freedom.
It was the scariest 30 seconds of my life.
About 15 minutes into 127 Hours, the Danny Boyle film about the canyoneering adrenalin junkie (some might say nutcase) Aaron Ralston, I turned to Mrs Me and suggested that I wasn’t altogether sure I was going to like this. Not that I thought it wouldn’t be a good film – Danny Boyle doesn’t really do bad films – just that, well, I figured that I wasn’t really up for being terrified.For those who don’t know, this is a film about a man who falls into a narrow crevice, getting trapped courtesy of a rock pinning his arm to the wall, whilst out trekking all alone in the rocky Utah desert. He remains trapped for the 127 hours that is the film’s title.
From the very moment that Ralston (played quite brilliantly by James Franco) gets himself trapped I could feel myself tense up. Virtually all of the action takes place within the confines of the narrow crevice, the walls looming up and around both Ralston and the viewer causing minor empathetic palpitations from this claustrophobe. As Ralston struggles to free his arm, first by pulling maniacally at it, then trying to hit, stab, and verbally abuse the rock into shifting, then by devising a makeshift pulley system that proves futile I found myself short of breath, wanting to look away, maybe even turn the DVD off and go for a walk, get some open space. In turn however, I found myself hypnotised, unable to actually move or shift my eyes from the screen. The horror, and horror there truly is in this movie, was all too gripping and all too real for me.
Many, I realise, will not get this reaction from the film. It is a personal thing – I hold a genuine and mortal fear of being trapped, and the thought of something similar happening to me sends me cold with absolute dread. However, the film is more than a personal attack on my phobias. It’s also a superbly well made film. Boyle intercuts and offers relief from the situation through flashbacks and dream, fantasy sequences. But the respite is painfully brief, always being brought back to the canyon before sufficient relieving breath can be drawn.
As with all of Boyle’s films, 127 Hours also boasts a killer soundtrack. But, unlike other contemporary film-makers, the music plays integrally to the story, rising and falling with the mood and character development and like with previous film Slumdog Millionaire, the backbeat and sound always adds some organic element to the atmosphere, as though the music itself is as much a part of the landscape and world as the inhabiting characters – in this case, the literal chasm between Ralston’s high adrenaline life and the sudden chilling stillness of his incarcerated predicament.
Those who know the story will also know that Ralston’s ultimate plan to escape, the decision he finally needs to make in order to have any chance of ever leaving the canyon, is the centrepiece of the movie. We move inexorably towards this moment, a slow and deliberate trek. For those who don’t know what this course of action is then I won’t spoil it. However, be warned, if you are of a particular squeamish disposition this is a prolonged scene, albeit remarkably well crafted in which we don’t really see as much as we think we do, which is as tough and as grisly to endure as any you are likely to see on screen. Forget the guff and nonsense of Saw or Hostel or any of those other torture porn flicks that have invaded our senses in recent years – this is the real, visceral and horrific deal that will have you wincing, panting and, according to a recent interview from Boyle on Radio 5’s Wittertainment show, in some cases humming.
127 Hours is hard work. I got there in the end, persevered through. It’s a brilliantly made story that plays upon a fear that is very personal and terrifying to me and I’m sure to many others. But more than that, it’s another example of Boyle taking a simple idea, a simple tale and telling it superbly well, with an unflinching eye, allowing the horrors and indeed the joys and elations to unfold naturally and without too much prodding.
I loved it but, if I’m honest, I’m not sure I could endure it again.