The kinds of pain


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Third in the Short Responses To Things You Must See Series

It took me several days to finish Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours [2010], his screen adaptation of the real-life dilemma of Aron Ralston who in 2003 had to cut off his arm in order to free himself from a rock that was pinning him in the belly of a Utah canyon. I was wuss. I went into the film knowing I could not possibly stand the sight (or even the suggestion) of physical torture James Franco had to endure in the role, even if it’s jazzed up in that Boyle way we’ve come to love in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire, films I’ve loved in varying degrees (although I always swear by Boyle’s earliest efforts more than anything else). Finally, I told myself: “You’ve watched the despicable Hostel by Eli Roth in one go, why couldn’t you do exactly the same for a much worthier effort?” That, plus the fact that I had to free up some space in my hard drive, finally made me sit through the entire film–and found it nothing short of amazing. One can read it as an adventure story, also a cautionary tale; a lot would come away from this film in that inspirational glow I usually come to suspect.

But here’s the deal: it is inspirational, despite its efforts to transcend the tendency. (Still, one can “accuse” Boyle for having a soft spot for such. Think of the kid in Millions.) The film has things to say about individualism, the connection between people, the things we must value above all things, the importance of a Swiss knife… But its engine lies in the emotional truism that sometimes life has a way of reminding us, often in the most heartbreaking (or arm-breaking?) way possible, about what is important. That comes to a clincher when Franco, as Ralston, finally comes to a clear understanding where this tragedy stands in the grand narrative of his life: “You know, I’ve been thinking. Everything is… just comes together. It’s me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock… this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It’s entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It’s been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.” That felt real. I understood that. It made me think of my own metaphorical “rock” in my life, or perhaps the possibility that I still have to meet mine.

I ended the film knowing a certain urgency about the things I need to do, and things I need to put more focus on despite being drowned by so much insignificant noise and my own need to people my world with just me, me, me, divorced from the need of other people. I need to connect. Heck, I need to de-wussify.

* * *
John Cameron Mitchell has never been one to shy away from the exploration of the rawness of our humanity. He steps into unbearable regions of ourselves with the rapt attention of a poet, and comes out of these explorations with precise, unflinching records of how we deal with all sorts of pain or loss. We see that in both Hedwig and the Angry Inch [2001], his directorial debut about a bitter transgendered rock singer with a botched sex-change operation, and later in Shortbus [2006], his controversial follow-up which is about a disparate group of New Yorkers grappling with sex, human connection, and sexuality, all done in splendidly pornographic details. But both films he did with an amazing command of cinematic poetry, and came off with such striking insights of what makes us human–our frailty, our courage, our savagery, our hopefulness, our incomprehensible methods of coping with pain.

He carries over that poetic take of the rawness of what makes us tick in his splendid, perfectly-tuned adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony-winning Broadway play. In Rabbit Hole [2010], we follow Becka and Howie, a young couple dealing with grief, eight months after the death of their young son who was ran over by a drunken teenager. I say “poetic” because Mr. Mitchell does not slap us with the story of their pain in an unwanted avalanche of hysteria. Instead, he pulls us slowly into their dilemma with quietly staged scenes that add and add to the tension as the minutes go by, without us reeling from the horror of it all. Instead, we become engaged in the pain. Mr. Mitchell makes it familiar, even when it seems ultimately unbearable–and when Becka and Howie finally allow themselves to erupt, we welcome the outbursts as if they were our own. Note for example the scene when Becka rebukes her mother’s attempt to comfort her with a talk about God. She retorts: “God is a sadistic prick. ‘Worship me and I’ll treat you like shit.’ No wonder you like him, he’s like Dad.” A slap in the face, indeed–but we understand it, we know where it is coming from. It helps that all this pain is being channeled by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman–she in a bravura performance that may be the best of her career. It is a terrifying role that can go horribly wrong in less capable hands. But Ms. Kidman manages to make it her own and manages to make it so unflinchingly human that we come to identify well with her struggle, with her outbursts, with her strange ways of coping. Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, who also writes the screenplay, also gives Dianne Wiest’s mother a startling and moving monologue about the loss of a child somewhere in the middle of the film–and it feels and sounds true, the voice of a mother who has come to know that kind of pain, and has tamed it, if only a little. This is a film that must be watched.

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