“127 Hours,” a stunning exercise in desperation and willpower

Jordan Wilson

Staff writer

Director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his 2008 triumph “Slumdog Millionaire” proves once and for all that he is a true cinematic visionary.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours,” based on the true story of an engineer and adrenaline junkie who bikes across deserts, wedges himself into canyon crevices, and dives into subsurface pools.  It’s these flashes of spontaneity that nearly get him killed after his arm gets pinned and crushed under a boulder while hiking in Blue John Canyon in Utah.

The real horror of the situation is that Aron failed to mention to a single soul where he was going on that particular day. He is in the middle of nowhere in a subterranean crevice with little food and water and even less hope of rescue, kept suspended only by the boulder wedged between the canyon walls.

And, of course – spoiler alert if you missed real-world Ralston’s tour of primetime cable television in 2003 – he eventually has to blunt-trauma his own arm off with a dull rusty pocketknife. Thus does the portrait of a fearless mountaineer quickly evolve into a gut-wrenching story of survival.

Boyle is working here again with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and a second cinematographer named Enrique Chediak. That these guys have envisioned and developed such a simultaneously invigorating and draining film out of a story previously thought unfilmable is a miracle.

Rather than stepping back and observing Aron’s predicament from afar, as many other filmmakers may well have approached it, Boyle is right there with him for nearly the entire running length. He also electrifies the screen with fascinating shots, like from inside of the straw from which Aron sips water (and later urine), or from the inside of his arm where – again, spoiler alert – the knife scrapes the bone after Aron stabs it in a rush of adrenaline and frustration. In the form of fractured hallucinations, we also find simple moments to be, in dire times, cherished.

This has to be the most intensely driven performance that Franco has given in his career. His work in the stoner-comedy “Pineapple Express” and more notably in Gus Van Sant’s  “Milk” in 2008 has been fairly consistent, but he has risen to new heights in “127 Hours.” It is a one-man show of frustration, rage, disbelief, regret, despair and anguish, and he plows through it with exceptional skill and dedication. There are moments where it is evident that Boyle said “action,” and Franco had to act honestly and naturalistically without any words, as when he attempts with all his might to move that boulder off of his arm, to no avail.

He has a camcorder with him, and at one point he hosts a talk show with himself as the guest, and scolds himself for being the lone wolf that he is, and for not telling anyone where he was going. It is a lighter moment in the film, but it is also revealing of Aron’s revelations and regrets about himself, and his desire to change should he ever make it out alive.

But Boyle and fellow screenwriter Simon Beaufoy do not make Aron an undisputed hero. His words are not heroic, nor are his actions. The restrain of sentiment here is admirable in that it avoids a sappy tale of triumph over the cruelty of nature. Boyle is not interested in that. Yes, it is amazing that he cut his arm off and managed to survive the whole ordeal – but the journey that the audience takes is exhausting and terrifying, and the amputation is exceptionally realistic and graphic. Nothing is softened up for commercial appeal – a trademark of Boyle’s career.

Boyle has unquestionably taken on some fascinating, risky and imaginative projects in his career – some of which have worked (Millions, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and some have not (Sunshine, A Life Less Ordinary). What can never be said of his work is that it is ordinary. Here, he has once again proven himself to be a genuine filmmaker, one who will be forever remembered for the brilliant work that he as done, and hopefully will continue to do.Grade: A

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