127 Hours; R, 93 minutes; Opening Friday

In 2003, Aron Ralston got so far away from it all that he almost didn’t get back. Stuck under an immovable boulder for five lonely days without nearly enough food or water or protective clothing or anesthesia, the 27-year-old mountaineer was forced to cut off his own arm with a dull pocketknife. Later he wrote a book called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which director Danny Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy have adapted into 127 Hours. Now he is played by James Franco. 

James Franco delivers a standout performance in Danny Boyle’s latest, 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston, who you may know as the the hiker who was forced to sever his arm after it was trapped beneath a boulder.

Lately we’ve had a lot of angles on Franco: as performance-artist soap star, as collector of higher degrees from good universities, as short-form fictioneer, as Allen Ginsberg. It’s easy to see the rightness of his Ralston in 127 Hours when he’s first pinned down by that rock—grunting, heaving, muttering, “This is insane!” Later, when graced with a fleeting shaft of sunlight, he reaches for it with everything he’s got. If any question remains about Franco’s gifts, maybe it’s the question of how many future biographers will want that image for the covers of their books. 

But before getting to that, there must be the introductory ministrations—the speedy twitch of Boyle’s belabored style. It was silly to hope for an ascetic presentation from the director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting. That’d be like getting trapped under a boulder in Utah’s Bluejohn Canyon and expecting prompt rescue from a passerby. But maybe some bustle up front is appropriate. This is, after all, a film about an imperiously hyper young man who came to stillness very suddenly and very much against his will. A young man whose narration of his own adventure, as told to his trusty video camera, goes from, “Just me, music and the night—love it!” to, “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life.” 

During that progress, such as it is, Franco’s Ralston mockingly interrogates himself. He thinks back on a quick, flirtatious frolic with a pair of female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) whose path he recently crossed, and on the family and friends who’ve meant the most to him—including a girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) he regrets giving up. Thankfully, Boyle does figure out that his movie’s best dynamics are in Franco’s face: the mischief in his eyes getting clobbered into forlornness, then swimming in delirium, then setting into resolve.

As for the pivotal scene, suffice to say Boyle has not skimped on the messy details. For instance, before cutting the arm off, Ralston had to break both of its bones. One at a time. The sound alone made somebody in my audience gag. And that’s saying nothing of the visuals. Saying nothing of the visuals seems like a good idea, so I’ll only add a caution to choose your 127 Hours concessions carefully; Twizzlers are not advised.

Posted In:     Arts

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