Danny Boyle doesn’t make it easy for himself. After exploring the teeming slums of India with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, he’s turned in a different direction with 127 HOURS. In it, James Franco, as intrepid hiker Aron Ralston, spends most of the film trapped in a sliver of a crevice carved very deep into one of the more remote areas of Utah. Boyle, ever willing to take the same sort of chances upon which his protagonist thrives, has taken a story that seems to defy filming and turned it into raw poetry that celebrates life with the same vitality of SLUMDOG, and with just as much visceral energy.
Based on the book Ralston wrote, Between A Rock and A Hard Place, about cutting off his arm to save his life when a boulder pinned his hand during a climbing mishap, the film saves that gruesome sequence, the actual amputation, for the very end. It’s a brutal experience for the audience, yet without it, the joy of rescue would not have the same soaring resonance. Without the ordeal that becomes a vision quest due to pain and dehydration, Ralston’s story would not be worth the cinematic time it takes to tell. Without James Franco in the title role, it’s hard to imagine that even with Boyle’s sweeping visionary concept, the film would have the same magic.
Franco’s Ralston is all twinkling eyes and adventurous spirit. A sprite of a trickster who has lived his life without regard for others, but without any malice either. Easy charm, good looks, and a benign neglect for those around him all coalesce into a weekend trip the destination of which he has told no one. Direct questions from a friend elicit a smile and a wave, the phone call from his family goes unanswered as he packs for the trek. The two girls he meets and guides safely on their way are left with an ambiguous answer to their invitation to a party later that weekend.
Because the opening credits note that Ralston wrote the book on which the film is based, there is never a question of his surviving the film. Because it is a fair assumption that many in the audience know the jam, literal, that he got himself into and the way he finally got himself out of it, Boyle could not rely on that element, either, as a means of generating suspense. Left was the ordeal itself. There is no skimping on Ralston’s complete understanding of what he’s gotten himself into. In one dizzying shot, the camera flies from a close-up of Franco’s face to an aerial shot that encompasses most of the state of Utah, showing not just the vast and empty area in which he is trapped, but how very tiny the crevice is in the scheme of the landscape. He also makes a virtue of the physiological effects. As Ralston slips into shock, dehydration, and the effects of increasing desperation, Boyle doesn’t just use the standard trope of the flashback. Too pedestrian. Instead, he integrates some of those memories into the crevice, allows the audience to be a participant of the hallucinations with all their telescoping of time and space. Still, for all the visual flash, its Franco’s performance that makes this more than an interesting film. Its summed up in the one shot that defines Ralstons character better than any other. Biking towards the canyon, his bicycle careens out of control, flies though the air, and lands with Ralston still aboard. There is a sickening thud. Ralston laughs with the sheer exhilaration of the experience. Franco’s face and very soul are alight. Ralson, via Franco, will be alight throughout the film. The ebullience of that soul never fading, even as life does. That process is charted by the video camera Ralston had with him and one which he recorded a diary of sorts, if only to leave something behind for his parents.
It’s when Franco doesnt speak, though, that make up the most devastating moments, short of the amputation. As he watched video of the girls he met on the trail hours before falling, there is in every molecule of Franco’s being the joy of life, and the regret of leaving it, and the regret of having lived so much of it alone. This is a performance as profound as the mystery of life itself. Actor and director are in perfect synch in expressing it, so that when, at last, Ralston cries out for help after stumbling away from his arm and his old life, it is a primal scream that reverberates as keenly in the audiences soul as the echo reverberates in the canyon on screen.
127 HOURS is not a film to be viewed lightly. It is the stuff of myth told in a modern vernacular. It’s harsh, exuberant, and ultimately life-changing.