They are three simple words. They form a small sentence, but are filled with potential for an enormous impact. Three ordinary words that you hear on a daily basis, a trio that create a familiar phrase. Three words that are stocked with self-sacrifice and risk, trust and hope, longing and desperation. Three words that could transform someone’s life.
“I need help.”
Those three words pour from Aron Ralston’s dried-out lips near the close of Danny Boyle’s latest film, 127 Hours. It’s taken over a lifetime for him to utter the phrase, but the past five days have been a unique chapter in Aron’s life. While canyoneering around the deserts of Utah, Aron’s adventures turn loose a boulder that leaves him with his right arm pinned between it and a rock wall. Unable to remove his arm, Aron spends the next few days with limited water and only memories and dreams for company (as well as a few ants and a raven). It’s not a good situation, but one key element makes it worse–Aron didn’t tell anyone else where he was going. He is truly and utterly alone.
Boyle’s direction and James Franco’s (Aron) masterful performance take a potentially boring premise (“how do you spend 90 minutes watching one guy stuck next to a rock?”) and create a taut and affecting thriller. Franco’s long looks into his digital camera as he says goodbye to his family are heart-wrenching. I cannot imagine the despair and frustration one would feel staring death in the face for 5 whole days, completely alone. There are moments of levity too, mostly involving Aron remembering better times with friends and family. A particularly funny moment involves a large inflatable Scooby Doo, but you’ll have to watch the film to see what I mean. The original soundtrack by A.R. Rahman perfectly sets the tone for each scene, creating an atmosphere for the subdued intensity Franco exudes in his performance. I would not be surprised if Franco was nominated–and won–an Oscar for his portrayal. I also have to praise the cinematography for both some of the best close-ups and panoramic views in a film this year. From the vast plains of Utah to the inside of Franco’s water bottle, every shot is deliberate and creative.
There have been other recent “one man show” films–Ryan Reynolds in this year’s Buried and Sam Rockwell in last year’s Moon come to mind–but 127 Hours has an important distinction: it’s a true story. After five days, having run out of water and borderline delirious, Ralston used a dulled utility tool to amputate his pinned right arm, then walked out of the canyon, rappelled down a 65-foot cliff, and was rescued. This isn’t really a spoiler; Ralston’s story was all over the media back in 2003. Yet knowing the end to the story doesn’t make it any less tense. In fact, knowing that the entire film leads up to an arm amputation–which is a particularly detailed and shocking scene–only makes the tension exponentially greater. You know this is all leading to something horrific, yet you still have hope. You want to be able to reach out a hand and help this guy, but you can only look on as he executes one of the most desperate and courageous acts of survival I’ve seen on film.
There is a moment where Aron is interviewing himself using his digital camera, comically demanding explanations for how he got himself in this mess. He remembers numerous opportunities he missed–not picking up the phone when his mom called days earlier, not telling a co-worker about his whereabouts, the break-up of a former romance. It’s not just that these were missed opportunities so that he could be saved from the boulder. They were missed opportunities for relationship, for connection with another human being. Aron happens upon two hikers early in the film, looking lost and rather cute. He guides them on a brief adventure in the desert, then runs off on his own again. This seems to be his relational modus operandi–initially appear fun and jovial, but not allow anyone too close. He’d rather do things on his own, independent of relational baggage, living unhindered and for the moment.
But the immediate moment, the one where he is trapped in a canyon, isn’t a time for independence. It is a wake-up call to reality: he needs help. Help can only be found when we look outside ourselves, when we ask another for support, to carry our burden with us and experience the pain or trial together. To ask for help requires a humble attitude and a repentant heart. Living in a culture where we pride ourselves on our independence and ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, the idea of help is pitied at best and frowned upon at worst. We celebrate those who do things on their own. Aron embodies this independent and wild spirit, this “I can do it all by myself” mindset. Yet when we take this idea to its logical conclusion, we find ourselves broken and alone, feeling pinned and isolated. Aron isn’t a hero in this story; he’s just a guy who finds himself alone and out of options.
127 Hours opens and closes with scenes of people piling through crowded streets and out of stadiums. This framing of Aron’s story reminds us that while we are surrounding by millions of people, we can choose whether or not we are connected with those around us. This film offers me a reminder: I need help. A life lived independently of relationship is not a life worth living. I cannot do this on my own, whatever this happens to be. I need Someone greater than myself, Someone who is not trapped or broken or pinned, Someone who has both the power and the will to save me from my own independence. We all do.