127 Hours 3 1/2 stars
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Rated R
In no way a real-time ordeal—thankfully!—127 Hours is more precisely a condensed 90-minute version of the just over five-day real life horror that befell Utah wilderness adventurer Aron Ralston, who eventually escaped certain death by cutting off his own forearm, which was trapped beneath a rock, with a pocket knife.
British director Danny Boyle’s revisiting of Ralston’s already well-publicized agony pinned under a canyon boulder may appeal neither to the squeamish nor those who love gore. But beyond it being awards season, there’s possibly a different sort of timing here, with this freak-out scenario arriving as an inadvertent footnote to Halloween.
Boyle (Trainspotting)—who seems to have a fondness for tense numerical countdowns in his films following the feverish and futuristic 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire’s beat-the-clock game show—frames this film less as immobilized despair than psychological thriller unleashed from inside Ralston’s head. In this manner, Boyle sustains the spectator’s undivided attention, fastened to a more metaphorical kind of rock that is the director’s version of the victim’s frantically paced imagination, which vividly projecting between survival instincts, nostalgia, regrets and a fantasy future of human encounters that may never materialize.
Transforming viscerally into that tortured vessel is James Franco, who beats himself up for his art in this role. Initially, he acts like a reckless prankster who, upon meeting two fellow hikers before getting stuck, promises them “the guaranteed best time you can have with your clothes on.” He’s abruptly humbled by the contradictory awesome beauty and frightening indifference of the natural world once trapped and isolated from civilization within Blue John Canyon, involuntarily nesting and self-entertaining as best he can with only 15 minutes of sunlight a day, a few digital contraptions, insects and a raven for company (details gleaned from Ralston’s memoir).
Audience attention rarely strays from Franco’s heartbreaking, infinitely patient one-man show. Just as the character’s own fervent focus on escape back to the human world—sometimes with humor and his own self-styled laugh track—keeps him from succumbing to hallucinations, insanity or suicide, though he’s never far from them.
Franco’s performance and Boyle’s cinematography, despite a few unnecessarily repetitious or only partially explained dream sequences, create a grueling dissection of how the mind can persistently and miraculously keep the body alive—even in its darkest 127 hours.