chemical in your brain

"127 hours" A film by Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, James Franco

OMG! What a film!

“Free Blood” sets up the “narcotic” vibe with their furious “Never Hear Surf Music Again” and the story that follows keeps up the mad pace and never releases its grip. This pace keeping is by itself already amazing considering that the film is about an immobilized man. How do you tell a story of a guy who can’t move? As an action flick. Naturlich! The structure resembles an hour-glass shape (a clever poster): from the “in your face” universal opening crowds montage through a singular ordeal zeroed in on a rock in the middle of the canyon slot we go back to the universal, because as “Free Blood” sings:

There must be some fucking chemical
(Chemical in your brain)
That makes us different from animals
(Makes us all the same)

Danny Boyle (whom previously I disregarded - both “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” plainly bored me) here grabbed me by the throat and forced to follow his storytelling exactly as he designed it. (I got that after hearing him and Simon Beaufoy talk with Jeff Goldstein on the Screenwriting Magazine podcast). To so effectively create a racing visual story about an immobilized fellow takes extraordinary skills. I came out of the movie theater shaken to the bone (no pun intended - for those who know the pivotal scene).

Some critics say the storytelling is manipulative and cynical forcing upon the viewer notions of guilt and redemption of Aron Ralston. I didn’t get that this way at all. My understanding of the film was that whatever happened to the hero happened because “shit happens”. The misfortune wasn’t brought by Ralston's shortcomings as a human being. It just happened. Granted, he did not leave a message where he was going and so nobody was able to help him, but, from a dramatic point of view, that was to keep the guy alone, and in reality it was everyday carelessness of being already high on his drug (as most of us are most of the time anyway). The scenes from his past were most likely the reaction of the psyche to the horrifying predicament. They were triggered by the “If I hadn’t only....” mechanism, more the result of the horror of the entrapment and not a court case for the reasons of the misfortune.

Misfortunes are around us. When they strike we usually react by “why me”. That’s why the filmmakers take this aspect and magnify it to the limits by the music video opening. It clearly says “it’s about all of us, folks”, “we are all drugged one way or the other”, “his kick is the outdoor sport, what’s yours?”

The second psychological mechanism of a misfortune is the already mentioned “if I only had not ...” We seek in our past justification for what befalls upon us. Sometimes shit happens with a reason, sometimes not. In case of Aron Ralston, we really don’t know the reasons. A transcendental intelligence maybe knows it. Not Ralston. Certainly not Danny Boyle.

I feel Boyle just tries to get inside the hero’s mind and recreate the “if I only had not...” mechanism. Accusing him of cruelty and manipulation and of feeding off some “gore porno” tendency does not in my opinion have any grounds. His work is light years away from such exploitation flicks like for example “The hostel” (that was a morally bankrupt film!) The final act in "127 hours" is not redemption (for some previous sins), but the result of fighting for once’s life and being strong enough and focused enough to win. On the other hand, films are individual, magical encounters and everyone should be free to experience them in a singular, original way. One man’s poison is another man’s medicine.

Vibrancy is one of the words Danny Boyle stresses when discussing the film. He indeed keeps the story alive. Is it the two DP units of (as he stresses) equal status that add energy to the storytelling? Not to mention a virtuoso direction itself, a very precise script and of course an amazing actor. Simon Beaufoy talks about the virtue of speed (not that speed!) in orchestrating a movie going experience. When he teaches screenwriting he makes his students to write a script in (if I remember well) three weeks. He explains that “what is missing in structure and depth is compensated by energy and drive”. Something like this says Werner Herzog when he talks about editing. Judging by their work the guys are right. (How come I struggle for a year with the editing of an hour long sociological documentary? That’s a rhetorical question I do not even wish to start answering here.)

Anyway, “127 hours” is a paean to the human spirit, an uncompromising invitation to participate in a brutal (but screen safe) experience that through its extremes reiterates with full gusto what it means to be alive. Or as “Free blood” sings in the motto:

"Take it if it makes you numb
Take it if it make you come
Take it if it makes you naked
Take it!"


  1. Hi there,

    I find it reassuring and comforting that our reactions to movies can differ so widely. It testifies to the power of the film medium itself.

    I'd say that the crossroads where our opinions part is located here:

    (you write): "The final act in "127 hours" is not redemption (for some previous sins), but the result of fighting for once’s life and being strong enough and focused enough to win."

    Me: But this is precisely what the abominable SAW series is all about! In the SAW franchise, people are put into deathly, tortuous contraptions and - in order to survive - they have to mutilate themselves, only to claim in the end that the experience was life-changing and that now they "know how to value life". Boyle's vision smacked of the same penny-dreadful moralism to me.

    But still, I'm glad the movie gave you the much-needed cinematic charge, even if for me it simply wasn't there.

    Cheers, pozdrawiam!

  2. Michal,

    There is no way to counter your take - in both films the core event is the same. I keep wondering why, while the SAW repulses me as much as it does you, I remind convinced of the (tragic) decency of 127 HOURS.

    What is it that makes essentially the same story appear (to some of us) once as a manipulative exploitation of the worst in us while the second time as a serious (while painful) meditation on the best in us?

    I feel that the answer (to me) lies somewhere in the way both films were written/directed. Perhaps some day I'll attempt to dive into it. For now however I remain very appreciative of our dialog to date.