Silver Screen: 127 Hours ****
You probably already know how 127 Hours ends. Outdoorsman Aron Ralston made national headlines in 2003 when he returned five days late from a solo outing in a Utah canyon, missing an arm and sporting an incredible story: After being trapped under a boulder for most of that time, he cut his own arm off with a pocket knife and hiked back to safety. It's an astounding true story, but one that seems less than cinematic-- in between the accident itself and the lurid self-surgery, it's four-and-a-half days of a guy stuck in some rocks.
Director Danny Boyle, reteaming with Slumdog Millionaire collaborator Simon Beaufoy (working from Ralston's book Between a Rock and a Hard Place), does a wonderful job of turning those four days of solitude into the heart of 127 Hours, which is more inspiring than harrowing, more psychodrama than survivalist porn.
The intermittently fascinating James Franco plays Ralston, and is onscreen for nearly every second of the movie save for a childhood flashback or two. We meet him the morning he sets out for the trip, giddily moving about his spartan apartment to stock up on supplies for a daylong trip through Blue John Canyon. He's a little reckless from the get-go, biking at top speed through treacherous, uninhabited country.
Then comes the fateful rock, and the fall. Ralston knows he's in trouble right away, but remains poised and confident. He's not under the rock, but rather is wedged between it and the narrow walls of the canyon, still standing. He hatches one plan after another to free himself, and videotapes his progress with a camcorder he brought along.
The film really hits its stride when Ralston starts to lose faith. After a day or two of fruitlessly laboring to free himself, his defiant optimism fades and his confidence ebbs. Alone and increasingly suspicious that he will die in the canyon, he begins to question the very need for solitude that landed him in this seemingly impossible position.
Far from being filler until the bloody climax, the flashbacks to his youth are what give the movie substance. Though Boyle and Beaufoy, perhaps unwisely, omit some key details-- they pretty much ignore that Ralston was a scholar and a mechanical engineer who opted out of his chosen career path-- they explore the dark undercurrent of unhappiness that has prevented the energetic, type-A Ralston from perhaps fully living his life and connecting to the people around him. As he grows more desperate, Ralston also begins to hallucinate what he believes to be premonitions of a future he can only reach through the most stunning and decisive of actions.
And then, of course, there's the amputation. By the time the scene arrives near the end of the movie, it seems strangely logical. Yes, it's graphic, although the intensity of the scene has been overhyped. Wrenching as the cutting may be, the days of torment he endured before reaching the decision seem far more oppressive.
Knowing the end of the story not only makes the experience of watching the film no less intense, it's almost immaterial. Boyle and Beaufoy have located a deeper story within the tabloid story, and it's incredibly affecting.
Despite the surface-level similarities, 127 Hours shares little in common with Sean Penn's excellent true-life wilderness tale Into the Wild. Ralston is no Christopher McCandless. He's not a tormented soul adrift-- he's a high-spirited, fun-loving guy who has perhaps been too willing to construct his lifestyle around his character flaws rather than facing them. (He's also, to say the least, a more practical and better-trained outdoorsman.) This makes him a more relatable protagonist, especially as portrayed by Franco, who not only captures the despair of the most dramatic moments but does an excellent job of conveying in a short amount of screentime Ralston's personable demeanor and high energy before his literal and metaphorical fall. It's essential in making 127 Hours not just a daring piece of filmmaking and a compelling drama, but an emotionally resonant experience that lingers in the mind long after the visceral shock of the climax fades away.