Film Review: 127 HoursGripping and surprisingly lively account of rock-climber Aron Ralston’s ordeal while trapped in a Utah canyon. James Franco excels in this virtual one-man show.
Hollywood hunks must suffer for their art too, as witness Ryan Reynolds’ struggle to free himself from a coffin beneath the Iraq desert in Buried, and now James Franco, re-enacting the true-life ordeal of rock-climbing thrill-seeker Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Ralston’s entrapment in a Utah canyon may sound like static and constraining material for a big-screen feature, but leave it to Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle to turn a most unpleasant predicament into a brisk, visually exciting and—dare we say it?—entertaining movie experience.
Franco, who’s been garnering lots of attention lately for his academic pursuits, gallery exhibitions and daytime soap-opera guest-star stunt, is perfectly cast as charismatic daredevil Ralston, and his presence is a big reason why 127 Hours rivets your attention. He fully persuades as the kind of cheerfully reckless athlete you might envy but would never try to emulate. From the opening seconds, Boyle applies a visual scheme to match Aron’s ADD sensibility, with split screens that give an impressionistic glimpse of his extreme-sports lifestyle. Early scenes reveal Aron’s charm as he befriends two lost female hikers and brings them to a favorite spot, a narrow crevice that opens into a small underground lake. Aron and the girls make plans to meet up the next day at a party, but fate cruelly intervenes.
While making an unexceptional climb, Aron dislodges a heavy rock which plummets along with him and crushes his arm against a canyon wall. The young hiker pushes and strains against the rock, but the stone will not move. He tries chipping away at it with the dull, cheap knife he brought instead of his reliable Swiss army knife, but the work is pointless. Most troubling of all, the complacent Aron has neglected to tell anyone about his latest rock-climbing expedition.
As the hours tick away and his water supply dwindles (Boyle includes a whooshing CGI traveling shot from the trapped hiker to the bottle of Gatorade left behind in his vehicle), Aron thinks back on happier times and that fun party he’s missing, has a nightmare in which he drowns in a flash flood, and narrates his own darkly comic talk show using the video camera he’s brought along. Ultimately, as hopes of rescue become more and more faint, Aron must take the one extreme choice available to him—slowly and painfully slicing into his own arm.
The actual amputation took 44 minutes, according to Boyle, and thankfully we get a very truncated depiction of the grisly procedure. Still, what we see is graphic enough to earn the film its R rating and reportedly cause some audience members to faint. But by creating such an intimate and life-affirming portrait of Aron Ralston, Boyle succeeds in his goal of suggesting to viewers that, caught in a similar crisis, perhaps they could also do the unthinkable.
Franco, who gained acclaim early in his career for his uncanny portrayal of James Dean, easily holds the screen and proves he has what it takes to be a major movie star. He’s abetted by a host of top-of-the-line elements: the efficient screenplay by Boyle and Slumdog Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak’s vivid and visceral cinematography, Slumdog composer A.R. Rahman’s lively music score, and very convincing soundstage replicas of the Moab Desert canyons by Suttirat Larlarb. In all, they make 127 Hours a quick and bracing 93 minutes.