by HELEN GEIB
Based on Aron Ralston’s memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 Hours recounts the true survival story of the hiker who famously cut off his own arm to escape a Utah canyon where he’d been trapped for five days.
The main part of the film is the canyon ordeal. It is bookended by short segments showing Ralston driving to the park and off-road bicycling/hiking in at the front end and hiking out from the canyon at the finish. However, for most of the running time he is trapped, isolated and alone, with his right arm pinned to the rock wall by a small boulder.
Ralston is not entirely alone on screen. There is an idyllic interlude at the start when he guides two young women hikers to a hidden pool. More significantly, the camera follows his mind as it slips into memories, what-if scenarios, and towards the end, hallucinations. His visions are populated by family, friends, an old lover, strangers, phantoms.
Nevertheless, the film is to all intents and purposes a one-man show starring James Franco. A part like this has role of a lifetime potential and Franco more than rises to the challenge. It is a riveting and memorable performance. It’s hard to pick a single standout scene, but I’ll force myself to choose and name the passage immediately following Ralston’s fall into the canyon: We are pinned to our seats as we bear witness to his slowly dawning comprehension of what’s happened; for a moment, he is completely stilled except for subtle changes in expression; the next moment our bodies strain with him as he tries desperately and with ineffectual violence to dislodge the boulder.
127 Hours was directed by Danny Boyle, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with frequent collaborator Simon Beaufoy). Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) is particularly well-suited to helm a commercial film where the main character spends about 90 minutes of screen time stuck in one place and narrowly escapes death by dehydration by cutting his arm off (an event depicted in realistic, graphic detail in a scene many people will not be able to watch all the way through). For one, his films tend to optimistic celebrations of human ability and will to survive.
Moreover, and typical for Boyle, the camerawork and editing are inventive, varied, and full of energy. From the opening shots, the direction grabs hold of the audience’s attention and refuses to let go. The obtrusive visual style could be too much if it wasn’t also purposeful, directed to translating Ralston’s thoughts into images. The film faithfully records Ralston’s physical experiences, but the filmmaking is far more interested in giving visual representation to what was running through his mind.
3 1/2 stars
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