Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
James Franco as Aron Ralston
Amber Tamblyn as Megan McBride
Kate Mara as Kristi Moore
Clémence Poésy as Rana
Lizzy Caplan as Sonja
Treat Williams as Aron’s Dad
Runtime: 94 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images.
Danny Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, James Franco’s best performance ever, one of the best films of the year… Pick a hyperbole. It’ll be true.
Some audiences may feel trepidation before going to see 127 Hours. Maybe they heard about that guy who had a heart attack while watching the premiere and are scared to go through such a harrowing experience. Maybe they just heard the title and are afraid that it describes the running time. Both fears are unfounded: 127 Hours runs a scant 94 minutes in length, and it’s such an astoundingly powerful movie that even watching James Franco saw through his own arm using the bluntest knife in the world feels completely justified and, given the circumstances, a reason to flat-out rejoice.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. Or at least it needn’t be: 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, an experienced hiker whose arm was trapped under a rock for… hang on, let me check… yup, 127 hours. Aron spent over five days in an isolated canyon dying of thirst, vainly trying to dig himself out and documenting his experience on a camera with a low battery before he finally sawed through his own arm, climbed down a 65 foot rockface and hiked over 8 miles to find the nearest human being. He wrote a book about it – with the forgivably cloying title Between a Rock and a Hard Place – and now Danny Boyle, fresh off of his Academy Award win for (the somewhat overrated) Slumdog Millionaire, has turned it into a life-affirming tale of heroism and survival. You can think of it as an Oscar-worthy companion piece to Saw if you want, but believe me you will think about it. 127 Hours is one of the best films of the year.
That Danny Boyle could turn such a simple tale into an outlandishly cinematic movie comes as no surprise. He’s one of the most energetic filmmakers alive, and his storytelling hasn’t felt this dynamic since Trainspotting (which for the record is really saying something, not an insult to his other work… well, maybe The Beach). Boyle begins his film with a striking montage of images that capture the eye but have no obvious correlation to the story – a crowded stadium, a meteorite and more – but over the course of the film we come to realize that each of these events in one way or another led to a stupid rock falling on Aron Ralston’s arm. Some of the more painful moments in the film come not from the tragedy itself but from early instances in which Aron forgets his Swiss Army knife, or gulps at his water supply too greedily for somebody who will soon need all the precious liquid he can get.
Water is more than a plot point in 127 Hours. Boyle gets as much mileage out of each drop of fluid in this film as most directors get out of an entire cast of talented performers. Which neatly segues us to a discussion of 127 Hours’ surprisingly large ensemble of actors. Franco is joined by such talented performers as Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Treat Williams and Lizzie Kaplan, many of whom appear in flashbacks or hallucinations and often so briefly that casting such prominent actors is momentarily distracting, but Boyle handles this tightrope walk delicately. Ralston’s many interactions are usually one-sided, with Franco rarely even making eye contact with his loved ones. It’s these moments that comprise the film’s greater theme, that in his final (127) hours even the most confident loner regrets the people he leaves behind. Not calling his mother back is more than a guilt trip, it’s a genuine tragedy, and the fact that this lack of communication will prevent anybody from ever even finding his body is just the punchline to one of life’s most malicious jokes. Stupid rock.
James Franco carries 127 Hours in what could prove a career-altering performance. To date this talented performer has been best known for his supporting role in the Spider-Man franchise, or at best as the world’s most lovable stoner in Pineapple Express. Here he carries the whole film and displays a range most performers would give their right arm for. (Cough.) Ralston is a charismatic individual and thoroughly convinced of his own self-worth. His ego refuses to die even while his internal organs shut down, and his insistence on meeting his fate with dignity and humor turns what could have been a survivalist snuff film into a triumph. His strength in the face of increasing fragility is the stuff Best Actor nominations are made of, and a win in the category would be entirely justified. Oscar Season has begun a little late this year, but Franco is officially the first robin of spring.
Any talk of 127 Hours thus far focuses on the intensity of the experience, to the extent that some theaters showing the film are now warning audiences in advance that averting your eyes is a perfectly acceptable reaction. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. This is exceptional filmmaking, inspiring on both a human and artistic level. Normally I’m not much for abject praise, but here it is: 127 Hours elated me. It’s one of the very few “Must See” movies of the year, but then again it would be a “Must See” movie in any year.