Why 127 Hours Is More Than Just a Gore-Fest

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You’ve probably already heard about 127 Hours — or, as it is better known, That Movie Where James Franco Saws His Own Arm Off. Yes, that moment does come in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Aron Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. And it is important. But the mountains of publicity that it’s generated means the film is being marketed as a thriller, a gore-fest, and (as David Edelstein refers to it in a snarky review that also entirely misses the point) a “wow movie.”

That’s a shame, because 127 Hours is anything but stunt. When it hits its stride, the film is a slow, lyrical exploration of the human spirit and its unfathomable tenacity.

This may seem like high praise for the Slumdog director’s new James Franco vehicle, but it’s well-deserved. And what is absolutely vital about 127 Hours is its basis Ralston’s real experience as a reckless, free-spirited mountain climber who pushed his luck too far, spent the better part of a week trapped in a canyon, and had to cut off an arm to save himself.

Although it’s often reductive or immaterial to focus on the true story behind a work of fiction, in this case it’s actually worth discussing. Because the arm-sawing — and most everything else — actually happened in Ralston’s life, it isn’t just an icky situation dreamed up by an Eli Roth-style writer/producer looking to turn torture porn into box-office dollars. It’s a dramatization of one man’s very real survival instinct, his drive to keep on living, even if it means doing disgusting and painful things. The extremely graphic scene in which Franco as Aron cuts through his own limb is indeed difficult to watch. But in doing so, we come to understand on a visceral level a simultaneously desperate and triumphant extreme of the human experience. That’s not something we get from the fantastical monsters of the Hostel and Saw movies.

Although the arm is important, it’s only one of many deeply affecting and vividly rendered scenes in 127 Hours — moments that shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Franco, who has always been an excellent actor, despite what anyone may think about his extracurricular activities, is in almost every shot, and he tells Ralston’s story with every bone and muscle in his body. This is a film about endurance, and it forces us to feel both the duration of its protagonist’s struggle to stay alive and retain his sanity. Its thrills aren’t cheap — in fact, they’re hardly thrills — or quick. 127 Hours invites (and holds up to) serious analysis and discussion long after the house lights come up. If you go into the theater bracing yourself for (or worse, looking forward to) the gross-out, then you’ll be missing one of the few truly inspirational movies of 2010.