‘127 Hours’: ‘Rear Window’ Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How to make the story of a hiker trapped alone in a chasmcinematic — not to mention inspirational, kinetic and moving

Danny Boyle’s new “127 Hours” is what we call a puzzle movie. Though it has fewer pieces – the number of characters and settings — than most, putting it together successfully is far trickier exactly because of those limitations.

Now, puzzle movies are not to be confused with party-trick movies, like director Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

And speaking of Hitchcock, never was there a director who so clearly relished a puzzle movie. He tested himself with “Lifeboat,” “Rope” and, one of his best, “Rear Window.” In each, his characters were confined to a single space, which served only to magnify the sense of dread and potential for harm. 

In more recent memory, Louis Malle made “My Dinner With Andre,” the talking heads marathon in which theater director Andre Gregory and playwright-actor Wallace Shawn yakked endlessly at a Manhattan restaurant. For excitement, they unfolded a napkin or sipped water.

John Hughes tried it with “The Breakfast Club,” though he allowed his kids, who spent much of the movie confined in weekend study hall, to break out and race through the high school’s hallways.

Tom Hanks has twice tested both his and the audience’s endurance with leading roles in puzzle movies. In Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away,” it was pretty much just Hanks and a volleyball for two hours, though he had the run of the island on which he stuck. If there was ever a movie that proved Hank’s fundamental likability to an audience, this was it.

In Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” Hanks played a man stuck in an airport purgatory. Again, despite the single setting, the film allowed itself  multiple locations as Hanks wandered about New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. As any traveler who has been through JFK knows, it is bigger and often more lively than an amusement park.

In “127 Hours,” the puzzle facing Boyle (and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy) was how to take a single actor and location and fill 90 minutes of screen time without having the audience feel as trapped as his main character, Aron Ralston, played by James Franco.

“127 Hours” is, of course the real-life tale of a solo hiker, Ralston, who was pinned down in a narrow, isolated chasm in Blue John Canyon in Utah for five agonizing days in 2003. The 26-year old engineer was trapped when a boulder fell, crushing and wedging tight his right hand against a rock wall.

As grippingly told in his aptly titled 2005 memoir, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Ralston finally was able to free himself by cutting off his own arm using the dull blade on a multi-purpose tool.

So how to make the story of a hiker trapped alone in a chasm cinematic — not to mention inspirational and, both literally and figuratively, moving.

The solution: Boyle cheated a little. Ralston encounters a pair of female hikers at the start of the movie, before he has his unfortunate accident. Additionally, he is allowed both flashbacks and hallucinations while trapped — his parents, sister, an old girlfriend and others show up.

That’s the glib explanation. The better and more accurate one is that Boyle smartly cast Franco, an actor who exudes energy and sly intelligence, as Ralston. His kinetic yet careful performance draws viewers in and keeps you rapt.

Additionally, Boyle lets cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak shoot every which way so that, while Ralston himself may be pinned down, the camera never is. What could have been claustrophobic is instead transformed into an unlimited, exhilarating exploration of a limited space.

When the movie nears it’s grisly climactic moment, you have come to understand that this is the only possible way out for Ralston. You’ll find yourself actually rooting for him to saw his way to freedom.

And note to the squeamish: You’ll see blood, gristle and gore and hear bones breaking.

By the end, it’s all pretty darned inspiring, both as an example of real life resourcefulness and bravery and as bravura filmmaking.

The real takeaway, though, is prosaic: Never go hiking alone without telling someone ahead of time just where you’ll be.