Let’s get right to the point. Yes, the scene is brutal. It lasts only a few minutes but the cringe quotient is almost unbearably high. But don’t let it deter you from seeing the film. You’ll be surprised how chipper you feel on the way out.
I am writing, of course, of the climactic scene in “127 Hours,” the new film from the director Danny Boyle. You know, the one where Aron Ralston, the free-spirited hiker played by James Franco, proceeds to sever his own arm. Aron becomes trapped when his arm is pinned to a rock wall by a falling boulder. For the next 127 hours he tries everything short of self-surgery to free himself. Ultimately, he does the unthinkable.
Why would anyone other than aficionados of the “Saw” franchise want to see this film? Why would Boyle, fresh from his Oscar victory for “Slumdog Millionaire,” choose to celebrate his win with an exercise in mutilation?
Good questions, both. “127 Hours” would seem to be a major departure from the crowd-pleasing “Slumdog.” In the latter, we encounter the teeming streets of Mumbai; in the former, the lonely expanses of the Utah desert. “Slumdog” interweaves the story of several characters; “127 Hours” is the story of one lonely canyoneer. Both films showcase Boyle’s frenetic style, but “127 Hours” is by necessity more subdued. When you’re filming in a rock crevice, there are only so many camera angles to exploit.
Perhaps that is what attracted Boyle to the project. The film’s narrative restrictions pose a tempting challenge for a skilled director. And Boyle pulls it off. He tells his story like a pro, with nary a wasted shot. When you see Ralston pack for his weekend hike to Utah, you sense that each item will be crucial to his survival. When he can’t locate his Swiss Army Knife, your stomach tightens, knowing he will regret it later. During Ralston’s entrapment, Boyle expertly introduces the tools he will need to commit the dreaded act. (I’ll never look at my Camelbak  backpack the same way again.)
Or maybe Boyle was attracted to the film’s gore after all. Over his career he has shown himself to be a careful student of human waste. This is the man who brought us Ewan MacGregor swimming in a toilet filled with his own excrement in “Trainspotting.” In “Slumdog” a young slum-dweller undergoes a similar humiliation, and in “127 Hours” Evan is forced to drink his own urine when he runs out of water. Forgive the graphic detail, but a unique aesthetic seems to be at work here. And in “127 Hours” that aesthetic finally comes into focus.
But first, more about Ralston: he lives alone with few attachments. He has no girlfriend, and ignores his family’s repeated phone calls. He lives for his weekends in the outdoors, and relishes the solitude it brings. When he meets two young women hiking in Utah, he tells them that the park is like a second home. James Franco nicely captures the pure joy Ralston finds in the natural environment, whether he’s speeding on his mountain bike or taking a blind leap into a hidden lake.
The flip side of solitude becomes quickly apparent once Ralston is trapped. No one knows where he is. The desert grows cold at night, and the canyon crevice receives only 15 minutes of sunlight. Birds and bugs circle. Gradually he reevaluates his life and the choices he has made. Using his video camera as a confessional, he records an apology to his parents for failing to keep in touch with them. He dreams about the day his girlfriend left him and whispers to himself, “Don’t go.” Tellingly, the sequence is staged in a sports arena where, despite the thousands of people present, Aron remains very much alone. What he realizes during his imprisonment is that he cannot, and does not want to, live alone.
In “127 Hours” Boyle poses a stark question to his audience: how far would you go to keep living? “People often say about the story, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I could do that,’” Boyle has said. “But I think we would all do anything for this life that is so beautiful and keeps us going.” Boyle’s film is a passionate argument for the value of life and why it is worth preserving at all costs. If he has shown an almost fetishistic interest in human fluids, then perhaps it is because blood and urine and excrement are, in the end, signs of life. The audience may look away when Aron ties a tourniquet around his arm, but Boyle doesn’t flinch. Life is beautiful, even when it’s bloody.
Another, subtler theme is hinted at in the opening credits. Split screens display a sports arena, a subway station at rush hour, a mosque at prayer. The bustling scenes contrast sharply with the gorgeous aerial shots of the Utah canyon where Ralston is stranded. This is the choice he faces: a life alone, or one lived in community. Ralston chooses a life with others, and not just because he craves human companionship. At his darkest hour, it was the memory of his friends and family—dramatized in flashbacks and dream sequences—that kept him sane. “One of ideas of the film is that he was never really alone in the canyon,” Boyle says. “Physically, he very much was, but he was surrounded spiritually by everyone he’d ever known or loved or dreamed about.” Here Boyle sounds very much like the man who made “Millions,”  the charming tale of a young boy whose relationship with the saints was very real.
A “feel-good film” is the oddest of descriptions of a movie about human dismemberment. Yet the cliché is strangely apt. Leaving the theater, I walked with a distinct lightness in my step, as if I was being shepherded home by my very own communion of saints.