Leave it to Danny Boyle to expand the possibilities of movies by shrinking his focus. 127 Hours is the claustrophobic true story of one guy, Aron Ralston, who is pinned down by a boulder in an isolated Utah canyon until he manages, horrifically, to free himself after six days. If your initial reaction to taking this endurance test is “Help! Get me outta here!” — fight it. Boyle, the visionary behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, pumps every frame of 127 Hours with cinematic adrenaline that declares war on the dull gravity of docudrama.
Of course, the whole movie would collapse if that one guy wasn’t played by one hell of an actor. And James Franco does the best, most natural and nuanced acting of his career to date, lacing terror with bracing humor. There’s an incendiary daring to Franco’s performance, a willingness to go for broke. 127 Hours is 90 minutes of raw power and a double tour de force for Franco and Boyle.
Things start on the move as Aron bikes into Blue John Canyon, near Moab, Utah, in April 2003. With the gifted help of editor Jon Harris and co- directors of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, Boyle pulls out all the split-screen stops as Aron whooshes through the wilderness to the propulsive sound of Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again.” When he flips his mountain bike, Aron laughs at himself and takes a photo.
The first chance Franco has to show us who Aron is comes when he encounters two hottie hikers (the beguiling Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and takes them to an underground lake. They talk about a party involving Scooby-Doo, but the girls know this devilish charm boy is a loner, and Franco excels at letting a few looks and gestures speak volumes.
Shortly after the girls wave goodbye, the accident happens. Scaling down a canyon, Aron slips. A boulder becomes dislodged, crushing his right forearm and trapping it against the canyon wall. He pulls and yanks at it. No give. Suddenly, the adventurer (27 at the time) who can’t stop moving is locked in place. No one knows where he is — Aron’s a lone wolf, remember. He makes a quick inventory — water, sandwich, camcorder, but no cellphone. Over 127 hours, anger turns to hope of rescue, fear it will never come, and worse.
It’s here in this seemingly static situation that Boyle, who adapted Aron’s memoir with Simon Beaufoy, makes his own special magic. Aron uses his camcorder as a way of working out personal issues. A radio show Aron devises for himself is a comic highlight for Franco and the film. Dehydration (drinking his own urine doesn’t help) leads to hallucinations, most involving his parents (Treat Williams and Kate Burton), his sister (Lizzy Caplan) and the girl (Clémence Poésy) who got away.
Still, it’s on Franco’s expressive face that Boyle tells his tale of courage under fire, even in that squirmy, avert-your-eyes moment when Aron uses a dull knife on his arm rather than resign himself to a tragic fate. Like the A.R. Rahman score that drives the movie, the triumphant 127 Hours pays fitting tribute to Aron by being thrillingly alive.