After the success of 2008’s Best Picture Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle finally earned the recognition he deserves as a filmmaker. So, to follow-up that feel-good crowd-pleaser, Boyle stays true to his eclectic directing pattern and makes an entirely different kind of movie: a harrowing, emotional depiction of one man’s triumphant perseverance for survival.
“127 Hours” tells the true story of how mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) endured five days trapped in a narrow crevice in Utah’s Blue John Canyon with his hand pinned under a fallen boulder, without any food and hardly any water. Just as Aron finds himself stuck in this tight corridor, so the film confines viewers there for the majority of its running time, alone with Aron and his thoughts during his struggle to make it out alive.
In the hands of a lesser director, Aron’s journey could have easily become tedious and lost viewers’ interest, but Boyle injects it with vivid detail and life from the get-go. The first 10 minutes zip along at breakneck speed, full of the dynamic energy and excitement Boyle is known for as Aron packs up his gear and begins his canyon trip.
Split screens, an invigorating soundtrack (with an original score by Oscar-winning “Slumdog” composer A. R. Rahman), sharp cinematography and quick editing all combine under Boyle’s mastery of style. Along with Franco’s enthusiastic portrayal of this daredevil outdoorsman, these aspects provide for a very entertaining opening preceding the sobering events of the accident.
Following an adventurous encounter with two lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), Aron continues hiking on his own, until he’s traversing a canyon crevice and a large rock slips. This causes him to lose his grip and fall into the crevice, where the rock crushes his right hand against the wall. It’s at this point that the movie really starts, taking a dramatic turn from light and fun to serious and poignant. I felt my stomach clench due to Aron’s brutal plight and got a worrisome sense of the grueling strife I knew was to come.
The next 70 minutes make for a gut-wrenching ride, as Boyle and Franco impart to viewers with extreme precision the desperation in every moment of Aron’s entrapment. When Aron drops his knife and can’t quite reach it, Boyle takes the mundane action and creates a very tense situation out of Aron’s attempts for retrieval.
One darkly funny sequence shows Aron pretending to host a talk show where he interviews himself using his camcorder, making a joke out of being stuck in the canyon with no way out. At the end of the scene Franco effortlessly changes the mood from humorous to sorrowful. He puts on a facade of enthusiasm that he slowly peels back as Aron reflects on the fact that he didn’t tell anyone where he was going, coming to terms with his impending mortality.
Simon Beaufoy (Oscar-winning writer of “Slumdog”) and Boyle’s script paces the story evenly by breaking up Aron’s isolation with lots of short flashbacks, hallucinations and other things he imagines. Besides providing further insight into Aron’s devil-may-care attitude and the lost love of his past, these brief segments also showcase Boyle’s stylish visual flair. He makes each one of these sequences stand out in their own way, one of the coolest being an imagined flood in the canyon.
In the final third of the movie, Aron progressively sinks deeper into delirium as his body starts to shut down and causes him to hallucinate. When he eventually runs out of water, his only option for sustenance is to drink his own urine, and Boyle makes sure the audience doesn’t experience it pleasantly.
But, as anyone who’s familiar with Aron’s story knows, it gets even worse than that before it gets better. With no options left, Aron finally builds up the courage to cut off his own lower arm using his dull utility knife, and Boyle shapes it into one of the most excruciatingly intense moments of the year. It’s painful to watch, guaranteeing heavy squirming and cringing, but the end product results in a powerful, positively life-affirming message.
Essentially carrying the whole of the film on his shoulders, Franco gives a profoundly intimate performance for which he’ll at least receive an Oscar nomination, possibly even a win. Franco’s always had a lot of talent, but until recently, his real acting skills have been overshadowed by his more mainstream characters in the “Spiderman” trilogy and “Pineapple Express.” However, since his role in 2008’s “Milk,” Franco has reminded Hollywood that he’s a legitimate actor, and now with this moving performance, he earns a spot among the front-runners of this generation’s top actors.
Succeeding both on the conceptual level of a single character, single setting film as well as an inspiring true story, “127 Hours” provides some of the year’s most gripping and realistic drama. It’s not an easy ride, but it’s more than worth it to experience this extraordinary tale of the human spirit.
Three and a Half out of Four Stars