If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off;
it is better for you to enter life maimed than to
have two hands and to go to hell, to the
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others Philippians 2:3-4
We usually interpret Jesus’ dire warning in metaphorical terms, his concern for his listeners leading him to use hyperbole. However, in April 2003 a 27-year-old hiker was forced to do just that with his arm when it became pinned to a canyon wall by a large rock. His drastic self-surgery was necessary if he wanted to emerge alive from the crevice into which he had fallen.
This film about Aron Ralston with its grisly scene of him chopping off the lower portion of his right arm was the last thing I wanted to see. But then came all the Oscar buzz surrounding both the mesmerizing performance of James Franco as Ralston and the film’s maker Danny Boyle (remember the latter’s Slumdog Millionaire, also about an individual under pressure?). There was no way to avoid including a review in VP.
The amputation was indeed difficult to watch, but in the context of the story, the courageous act becomes one of freeing his body from the useless lower arm, now turned gray because the tissue was dying from lack of circulation of oxygen-bearing blood.
The amputation scene is mercifully short, though shown in all its goriness. His arm bound tight by a tourniquet, Aron is freed to stagger his way through the crevice and make his way back along the trail to seek help. This physical freedom is paralleled in the film by his gaining a second freedom—from the selfishness that permeated his life, vividly seen in numerous ways, and which resulted in his horrendous predicament.
Depicting his gaining this second freedom requires more than just a few minutes of screen time. The film begins with the screen split into three vertical columns in which we see hundreds, if not thousands, of people—waling along an urban street; running in marathons; going up and down escalators in a crowded mall. The images then shift to the solitary Aron, as if contrasting his personality and life style with other people. When, on that Friday in April 2003, he decides to drive from Boulder, Colorado with his mountain bike to his favorite hiking spot, Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, he tells no one, not even his friend at work, nor his mother, whose phone call he refuses to pick up on. Thus no one knows his whereabouts as he struggles to extricate himself from his deadly predicament. His doom might very well come about because of his cocky selfishness, as he ruefully confesses into the camcorder that he has brought along.
We see this cockiness in the way that he jumps into the air on his mountain bike as he heads toward the final part of his destination. Careening recklessly along, he crashes to the ground, but uninjured, picks himself up and speeds off again, seeming to have learned nothing from his fall. Meeting two women hikers who are lost, he seems to enjoy showing him on a map where they are. He revels as the knowing tour guide as they spend a few enjoyable hours together dropping from a crevice into a hidden pool of warm water.
Alone later, he slips and falls into the crevice. The large rock that he had dislodged crashes against his right arm, pinning it to the wall. He grunts and groans while trying to lift the rock, at one moment looking like Atlas as he works his way under the rock in a futile attempt to raise it with his back. Trained as an engineer, Ron methodically unpacks his knapsack and lays out its contents on a ledge—his precious canteen and a sport drink, a little food, the already mentioned camcorder, his climbing ropes (which he will later use to try to lift up the rock), and an all-purpose tool that contains a knife. However, the knife is pretty dull, he finds as he tries to chip away at the edge of the imprisoning rock. At one point he drops the tool, ingeniously retrieving it with great difficulty.
Filmmaker Boyle is himself ingenious at making this tale of a solitary man in a confined setting exciting. As the days pass, with each plan to dislodge the boulder failing and his supplies running low (his water is partially replaced by a sudden night storm, but then Ron’s fear is that he will drown in the flash flood), his desperate mind thinks back upon his life—time spent with a loving father who introduced him to the beauty of this park; of he and his parents listening to his little sister playing the piano, his girl friend and their break-up at a sports event, and more. The latter includes fanaticizing and hallucinating, his increasing thirst (not very slaked when he has to drink his urine) leading to memories of a party where there were plenty of drinks, and then even to a series of soft drink and beer commercials. Ever so often he speaks into his camcorder, his sense of humor coming through, and, more importantly, his realization of his selfishness.
Thus the film’s moral arc is from his self-centered world into the larger one of awareness of others and then to the agonizing decision to free his body at all costs. Finally staggering down the trail trying to catch up with a trio of hikers he dimly sees ahead of him, his call to them has a larger than their immediate meaning, “I need help.” We can applaud Aron’s moral awakening, and can hope that there will be a spiritual one as well. Aron seems to be thoroughly secular. Not once do I recall him referring to God or uttering any semblance of a prayer, not even of the foxhole variety. He just never seems to think of a higher being to whom he might appeal.
This film might not be suitable for a film group due to the amputation scene, but for those able to stomach a couple of graphic moments of blood and gore, it offers a great opportunity for discussion of important issues.
1. What did you make of director Boyle’s use of the split screen technique? What is he able to show by this technique? (As a producer of numerous multi-image productions—using three slide and/or film projectors—back in the Seventies, I always enjoy the contrasts depicted by this technique.)
2. What kind of a person does Aron seem to be? How does the film show this? When does Aron become aware of this, and how does he show this? He is ingenious we see, but is ingenuity always able to deliver us?
3. How prevalent do you think his philosophy of self-reliance is in our society? What does it take to make us aware of the shallowness of this?
4. How can we see this film as a parable of two freedoms, one physical, and the other moral? At what points in the story, if any, do you see yourself?