Theatrical review: 127 Hours is a lean, simple tale about much more than just a man cutting off his arm. As directed by Danny Boyle and brilliantly acted by James Franco, it’s about everything you gain when one of the most extreme situations imaginable forces you to leave so much behind.
In 2003 a 27-year-old climber named Aron Ralston (James Franco) heads out to Blue John Canyon in Utah for a weekend of solo biking, hiking and canyoneering. Outgoing and charming with a blissful grin that doesn’t demand but doesn’t mind an audience, Ralston is physically and emotionally self–sufficient. After meeting and taking a breezy swim with a couple attractive female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), Ralston sets out once again by himself; alone again naturally, a self-reliant American superhero reveling in his solitude.
And then he slips into a small canyon and accidentally pulls a medium-sized rock down on him, completely pinning his right arm. Aron cannot move the rock, cannot pull his arm free, and has only a few days’ worth of water. And he has not told anyone where he was going.
The triumph of 127 Hours from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) isn’t that the film makes five days in a hole with a single immobile character so dramatically riveting. Though it is—plenty—thanks to Boyle’s kinetic film making and especially Franco’s deeply felt performance.
Nor is its triumph that when the time comes for Ralston to desperately and with mesmerizing determination cut off his own arm to get free we are so completely wired and invested in the character and his situation that we have to see it through in all its painful, gory horror. (Which the director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later does not shy away from showing in nerve-wracking, graphic detail.)
What makes 127 Hours a triumph is in how powerfully Boyle, Franco and Slumdog screenwriter Simon Beaufoy transmute Ralston’s dire predicament and ultimate solution into a story of uplift and personal growth. 127 Hours isn’t about a man who makes a mistake and has to cut off his arm—it’s about a man who is compelled by the most dramatic of circumstances to reexamine and change who he is. Call it “Pinned by a Boulder Therapy.”
Ralston’s world suddenly goes from large and limitless, racing care-free across America the Huge, to very narrow and extremely limited. Along the way, director Boyle marvels at the American West’s Big Skies, its vast natural emptiness, and the sometimes-foolhardy forward motion of its people. He comes at the story with his characteristic visual energy and love of music of all moods, used here to show both the young man’s grab-and-go momentum and the jittery, hallucinogenic places his mind and memory escape to after fate and nature stop that physical momentum cold.
That frenetic style might have tipped the film off kilter if it wasn’t anchored by the staggering work of Franco, one of our finest younger actors. Ralston’s limited physical movement gives the actor plenty of time to take us deeper into the character, sometimes through video logs that are part confession, part potential epitaph.
Franco’s face is etched with an almost Zen-like intensity as he matter-of-factly addresses the problem—sometimes loopy, sometimes lapsing into anger or weary resignation, but never sinking into fear or despair. And through the actor’s easy, expressive passion, we share in both Ralston’s frustration and his minor achievements, such as the miracle of a few minutes of direct sunlight on his free hand each morning.
When 127 Hours finally gets to That Scene, it doesn’t signal the end, but the beginning—the crossing over from entrapment to freedom, but more importantly Ralston’s realization that what remains pinned under the rock is much less valuable than what he’s taking from it. That Boyle and Franco take us all the way there with him is 127 Hours’ greatest achievement.
More James Franco from redbox:
- Eat Pray Love
- Love & Distrust (read more in my Picks)
- Date Night on DVD and Blu-ray (read my full review)