In Theaters: Review of 127 Hours

by | Dec 3rd, 2010 | 9:21AM | Filed under: Movies, Theatrical Reviews

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.


Read my interview with director Danny Boyle

More James Franco from redbox:

More tales of survival from redbox:

8 Responses to “In Theaters: Review of 127 Hours

  1. matphoto
    Posted on December 3, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    I remember reading about this story years ago and I had no idea it was being made into a movie. Your review definitely makes me want to see it, but at the same time I’m almost afraid it will be too real. This sounds like the kind of thing I was hoping for with ‘frozen,’ but where that became laughable this could become too believable and intense. I mean the whole reason I like movies is because the good ones can do that, but I don’t want this to keep me from ever comfortably travelling alone again.

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on December 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    Well, Matphoto, that’s certainly the delicate balance that 127 Hours walks–I think successfully. Boyle’s use of editing, music, flashbacks and hallucinations manages to perfectly keep the tone energetic and not depressing, while at the same time never losing sight of the predicament or letting the viewer off the hook emotionally.

    Yes, the climactic moment is very graphic (not so much in comparison to horror films, but very much so for an Oscar contender), but as I’ve said, everything before and after it is so engrossing and gripping (no pun intended) that the removal of the arm becomes such an important thematic moment — you kinda have to go through it cinematically with Ralston to get out to the other side.

    Bottom line, it’s never boring, never depressing, and while it is believable and intense, that’s what makes it so ultimately uplifting.

  3. matphoto
    Posted on December 4, 2010 at 12:15 am

    I’ll stick it out, but I’ll just have to deliberately keep from imagining myself in that situation. Not that I’ve really tried to, but I can’t think of anything much worse than that.

  4. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on December 4, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Well the tone of the film is never “worst situation” despair — what’s interesting (and what keeps it from being an ordeal to watch) is how pragmatic and matter-of-fact Ralston is about things. He takes careful inventory of his supplies, immediately begins planning elaborate efforts to free himself, and just keeps working at it, even as his video logs make it clear he knows there’s a good chance he won’t ever leave the canyon alive. He just keeps moving forward even when he’s physically pinned, and that’s why the film is exhilarating instead of depressing or terrifying.

  5. matphoto
    Posted on December 4, 2010 at 3:18 am

    That’s good to know, thanks. If I get the chance I’ll probably check this one out in theater.

  6. Erika Olson

    Posted on December 4, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I seriously faint at the drop of a hat, and even *I* made it through this one, so have no fear, you’ll be fine. You know when The Scene is coming, so it’s easy enough to look away. That’s what I did. : ) And I also don’t like “too real” movies because my husband is always making me go on crazy adventures where I think we’re going to kill ourselves, but once again, totally did not feel that way about this movie. It’s definitely worth seeing! Let us know how you like it!
    - e

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on December 4, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Seen it! Was gripping! Had to watch the top corner of the screen for a couple of minutes to keep my popcorn inside! Great movie!