Multi-tasking graduate student, filmmaker, actor, poet, author and sometime soap star James Franco is back in an adrenaline rush called 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle’s first film since winning the Oscar two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the most harrowing film of the year.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is the real-life tale of Aron Ralston, a fit, adventurous all-American dude. While on an arduous hiking trip alone in April 2003, he fell through a crevice on a dangerous Utah canyon climb and crashed to the bottom of a gorge, crushed in a vise by an unmovable boulder.
We watch helplessly as he lives through 127 hours of desperation—running out of water, losing circulation, trying to set up a rope pulley with one hand, hallucinating about rescue missions, possible escapes, girls and Perrier commercials, cursing himself for his own sense of reality (he arrogantly neglected to tell anyone where he was going). After five days of screaming for help to no avail, and trying everything an accomplished climber knew how to do to free himself, he was so dehydrated and half-conscious from loss of blood that he was forced to make a wrenching physical and emotional decision few people (luckily) have ever faced: The only way to stay alive was to cut off his right arm.
The result was so hair-raising that Ralston wrote a book about it, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Atria Books, 20004), and served as a technical adviser on the film, showing Franco the videotapes he made in the canyon when he thought he was dying, even acting out the entire experience on the actual locations in the Utah desert near Moab where it happened. The dedicated, diverse Franco was stuck in a hole long enough to read the entire collected works of Proust, but thanks to Boyle’s energy, for a story about a man who cannot move, the ordeal moves at a pace that keeps you breathless. As a true survival story, it’s so intense that preview audiences at various film festivals have fainted and been carried away on stretchers.
Boyle captures the inner panic under the canyon surface and juxtaposes that desperation with the vastness of the sunlit world above. The use of tiny digital cameras and improvisational working methods gives the movie spontaneity without sacrificing any of the details of Ralston’s mind-blowing situation. Far from a Hollywood version of an outdoor thrill ride from the pages of Boy’s Life, the film takes into account the dangers of Ralston’s passion for risk, even holds his arrogance partially accountable for what happened. Despite what an experienced climber knows from experience, luck can run out at any time.
The director does everything that can be done in a man vs. nature epic to keep it alive and spinning, and so does his star. In what is essentially a one-man tour de force, Franco makes you feel every minute of this torture in a performance that is both grueling and captivating. Drifting into childhood reveries, living by his wits while facing certain death and recording everything with a camcorder held in his left hand, he acts in the moment and you live it with him, trapped by his side and vicariously sharing every mood shift.
Fraught with tension, yet never claustrophobic, 127 Hours is a phenomenal piece of work in which a fine actor and an innovatively cinematic director join forces to keep you gasping for oxygen all the way.