That could have been Aron Ralston’s epitaph.
Spoken at the bottom of a claustrophobically narrow desert canyon in the middle of nowhere with the dawning realization that his risk-taking and danger-mocking have brought him to the brink of death.
He doesn’t die. I’m not giving away anything here. Ralston achieved worldwide fame when, in April 2003, he freed himself by sawing off his arm with a small, dull utility knife and lived to tell the tale.
Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” has turned that tale into a remarkable movie. Simon Beaufoy, who also won an Oscar for scripting “Slumdog,” wrote the screenplay.
With James Franco playing Ralston, and shooting a significant portion of the picture in the wilderness area where the incident took place, Boyle has made a picture that delves deeply into the psyche of his subject.
It’s a story of a man’s humbling and of rebirth. The Ralston we meet at the beginning is an impatient, daring and supremely confident guy. And also rather a fool, thanks to that self-confidence.
Ralston, an experienced outdoorsman, goes off on his desert jaunt without telling anyone where he’s going or when he expects to return.
He goes alone.
But he’s an engaging dude. Franco plays him with a rogue’s grin, whooping and hollering as he zooms across the wasteland on his bicycle, crashing, dusting himself off and cackling gleefully as he climbs back aboard the bike and speeds away.
That wasteland – Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah – is stunning, austere in its beauty and breathtaking in its vastness. Ralston treats the place as a playground, exulting as he races pell-mell toward the horizon. But he doesn’t respect his surroundings. He’s an egotist, and his egotism is his undoing.
Trapped in the canyon with no one around for miles, the character undergoes a slow, profound psychological transformation.
Hours pass. Days pass. His water gets low. As exposure and thirst take their toll, he begins to hallucinate. Visions of his parents, of a girlfriend he treated cavalierly, of a boy who could be himself or a son he might never have, swirl in his mind.
His cockiness leaks away and is replaced by a belated sense of appreciation for the people nearest and dearest to him whom he has long taken for granted.
Down in that hole, Franco drills down through the layers of Ralston’s personality, and the transformation is reflected in his eyes as his thoughts turn inward to reflection and regret and as he expresses those feelings into the lens of a small camera he’s been carrying.
Hovering in the background is determination. He knows despair is his enemy, and if he gives in to it, he will surely die. Because we know his story and we know what’s coming, a sense of tension and suspense relentlessly builds. We know what’s coming, and yet when it comes, when he plunges his dull knife into his flesh and summons the will to snap his bones, it’s a surprise. Hang onto your lunch when it happens.
In a terrible situation, with his water gone and his strength ebbing, all that remains for Ralston is his will to survive. Powered by that incredible will, he acts. His act is so mindbogglingly audacious that all you can do is marvel at it, and at the movie that shows how that incredible act came to pass.
* * * *
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
Running time: 1:33
Rating: R; language, gruesome situations, nudity