More than because of mere gore, director/writer Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours starring James Franco has people passing out in theatres because of the psychological vertigo it causes. The film follows the astounding true story of Aron Ralston who becomes trapped, literally, between a rock and a hard place (which happens to be the understated title of Ralston’s own book detailing his ordeal) and has to hack his own arm off in order to survive. In an interview, Ralston explained that as he was chipping away at the huge boulder that came to pin his wrist to a rock wall, the knife accidentally slipped into his thumb. The blade, he said, sunk in as if his hand were warm butter. Even more disturbing, his hand began to hiss as it decompressed since, after nearly five days of it being without circulation, it was now decomposing. 127 Hours is one of those few films that doesn’t set out to be terrifying but nonetheless manages to create a real vertigo as we imagine being alienated from our own body (suddenly we can’t feel or control it, only see it) and then having to amputate a part of it with a crude tool.
The major, and unexpected, subtext that provides an overarching levity to this otherwise heavy story is the Native American vision quest. Although there are no blunt tip-offs, Ralston’s ordeal follows a typical quest’s narrative closely. For a quest, one (usually coming of age) goes into the wilderness alone for a number of days where exertion and physical duress (hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, fatigue) attunes him to the natural world and the spirit world. Ideally, he meets his guardian animal (or his “power animal”) that watches over him and plays a role in imparting wisdom and life direction. Hallucinations are also common in vision quests.
Ralston undergoes all of this. His appreciation of sunlight (entering the crevice at 9:30am for 15 minutes) wells him up just as he is awed by the raven that slides through the morning sky (before the sun enters) and which seems to be a part of a greater intelligence or, even, a greater spirit (or the brilliance of evolution, if you like). As his health deteriorates, he hallucinates with increasing intensity, finally having a vision of himself playing with a future son. Fuelled by this vision, he sets to breaking his bones.
It seems the raven oversees the boulder that falls to crush Ralston’s arrogance and pride, which we are acquainted with through flashbacks, and there is no more suitable object than a boulder to lay bear one’s weakness and frailty. Ralston realizes this is the meaning of the boulder. It was waiting for him for millennia –
and the rest of us just hope that if the Universe has lessons, they come in gentler packages.