Review: 127 Hours

James Franco is riveting in this visceral real-life survival tale.

James Franco is riveting in this visceral real-life survival tale

James Franco stars as hiker Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's real-life wilderness drama 127 Hours. ((Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures))

Director Danny Boyle excels at turning the dark and dire into the kinetic and exhilarating. He worked that magic memorably with Trainspotting (1996), about the dead-end lives of heroin addicts, and again with his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which dealt with grinding poverty.

In 127 Hours, he applies his alchemy once more, this time to the real-life survival tale of Aron Ralston, the gutsy young hiker who cut off his arm to escape death after being pinned by a boulder for five days.

A film about such an ordeal could be an ordeal to watch, but Boyle makes it a dazzling, kaleidoscopic thrill. He employs just about every director’s trick at his disposal: flashbacks, hallucinations, split-screen, digital video, vast aerial shots of the Utah wilderness and microscopic photography of insects and urine bubbles. (Yes, urine bubbles – more on that later.) This is filmmaking as extreme sport.

Boyle leaps into the story with the same reckless enthusiasm as its hero. The adventure-loving Ralston, played here by the charismatic James Franco, is a human whirlwind who goes roaring up to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in his truck one spring weekend in 2003, jumps on his bike and whips his way – with the occasional wipe-out – to remote Blue John Canyon.

En route, he stops to help a pair of lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and introduces them to one of the daredevil pleasures of canyoneering. Then he’s off again, rock music blasting in his earphones, bouncing through those sinuous ochre canyons like an ecstatic wild animal.

While scrambling along Blue John, he tumbles into a deep fissure, dislodging a boulder that jams his right arm against the wall. He’s abruptly stuck, unable to extricate himself from the narrow slit of rock. And yet the film itself doesn’t slow down. Boyle zeroes in on the details of Ralston’s predicament with an operatic intensity: his dwindling water supply, his drying contact lenses, his efforts to retrieve a dropped multi-tool with his bare foot. That same two-bit multi-tool proves useless at first. It’s no good for chipping away the rock and its blade is so dull that when Ralston first toys with amputation, he has to saw at the skin on his arm to achieve even a minor abrasion.

Ralston does have his rappelling equipment with which to rig a makeshift pulley, in the hope of moving the boulder. He also has his camera and a camcorder to document his plight and tape farewell messages for his family. As he becomes weak and dehydrated, the hallucinations kick in. Like Ralston, we’re not always sure what’s real and what isn’t. Obviously, not the giant inflatable Scooby-Doo that pops up in the canyon, but what about that apocalyptic rainstorm?

There isn’t a minute in 127 Hours that is less than riveting. But for all its narrative flash, it’s a fairly simple story. Unlike, say, the tale of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild, Ralston is not a troubled or particularly complicated character. His main flaw is a streak of selfishness that seems to have wrecked his relationship with an ex-girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) and has probably hurt his loving parents (Kate Burton and Treat Williams).

Ralston snaps a souvenir photo with fellow hikers Kristi (Kate Mara, centre) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn). ((Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures))

In his usual stubbornly independent fashion, Ralston didn’t bother to tell anyone where he was hiking. He chides himself about this in a bitterly funny scene where, camcorder in hand, he pretends to interview himself on a TV talk show. It’s a bravura episode, both visually and emotionally. Boyle caroms playfully between film and video, while Franco turns the Q&A into a self-lacerating comic riff that makes you want to cry.

There will be jokes to the effect that spending 90 minutes trapped in a canyon with James Franco sounds more like heaven than hell. But in fact, the appealing young actor uses all his assets here to maximum effect. He gives Ralston a charming, sleepy-eyed self-confidence in the early scenes, which gives way to a James Dean-like sensitivity when he begins to convey the man’s inner and outer pain.

At the same time, his Ralston also has a saving sense of humour – when forced to drink his own urine, he compares it unfavorably to a Slurpee. (My favourite Franco role may still be his supernal stoner in Pineapple Express, but here, he’s just as trippy, in a different way.)

Boyle has assembled his winning Slumdog team, including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (whose script is based on Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place) and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The latter shares shooting credits with Enrique Chediak, and together they provide what could be the best advertisement for the rugged beauty of Utah since the films of John Ford. And then there’s A.R. Rahman’s finely calibrated score, which is a breathtaking thing in itself.

As expected, the amputation scene is a tour de force of gore. But like the best bloody sequences (think Psycho) its effectiveness has less to do with what we actually see than with a nerve-jangling medley of excruciating sound effects, Franco’s agonized performance and our own horrified imaginations.

It’s also, ironically, a triumphant act – gruesome proof of Ralston’s overriding will to live. Once again, Boyle has made a movie about a grim subject that has you walking out of the theatre high on the pure joy of being alive.

127 Hours opens in Toronto on Nov. 12, in Vancouver on Nov. 19 and in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa on Nov. 26.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.