Thursday, November 18, 2010

Movie Review: "127 Hours"

In 2003, hiker Aron Ralston found himself literally trapped between a rock and a hard place.

While hiking in a Utah canyon, a boulder dislodged and pinned Ralston in the gap by his arm. For five days, Ralston fought hunger, thirst and pain before finally using a dull pocket knife to amputate the appendage and escape to safety.

It's a harrowing and intense story, even without any visuals. And much of the early press for Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," which is based on these events, has focused on how audiences have reacted to the climactic amputation sequence, with a few reports of fainting at early screenings. The stories have caused some people I know to say they couldn't bring themselves to see the film.

That's a shame. While a suspense-riddled and intense survival tale, most audience members aren't likely to leave "127 Hours" feeling sick or upset. I suspect exhilaration is a more common experience. Rather than create a dark and graphic "dare you to look" story, Boyle weaves a tale that is just as much a celebration of life and the human spirit as his "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a true-life adventure, wrapped up in a meditation of what keeps pushing humans on when all hope is lost.

James Franco, who seems to flip between drama and comedy, has found a role that will define the rest of his career. As Ralston, he captures the spirit of a man with an insatiable thirst for life and adventure, and a dangerous sense of independence. Ralston's a self-described "hard hero" who helps with survival and rescue missions, but he neglects to tell anyone where he's going on this excursion and doesn't bring along a cell phone or any means of contact.

Aside from a flirtatious meeting with two female hikers early in the film, Franco is the only face on the screen for the majority of the run time. And, trapped in a narrow canyon with his arm pinned to a boulder for the majority of 90-minutes, he brings to life the frustration, fear, determination and intelligence that fueled Ralston during his five-day ordeal. At times he collapses in tears as he realizes his plight; at other times, the comedic sensibilities that served Franco so well in "Pineapple Express" come into play, such as when Ralston airs his feelings on a mock interview show he captures on his video camera. It's a fantastic performance that shows a range to Franco that I was unaware existed prior to this.

Boyle, a director who has helmed everything from junkie dramas ("Trainspotting") to zombie movies ("28 Days Later") to children's films ("Millions"), has his work cut out for him here; it's not easy to helm a movie that takes place in two feet of space featuring a lead character who can't move. Boyle utilizes every trick in the book - pulsing soundtracks, split-screens, switching film stocks - to keep the story moving, from its adrenaline-charged opening sequences to the riveting hallucinations Ralston endures in the canyon. In doing so, he expands the story from a simple tale of survival to a meditation of meaning, our need to depend on others and the triumph of the human spirit. With Franco commanding the screen and Boyle masterfully manipulating everything behind the camera, "127 Hours" is a constantly riveting and powerful experience.

I know some won't be able to stop thinking about the amputation sequence and, yes, it is intense, as Boyle uses sound effects to suggest more than he actually shows. But my hunch is that the scene is so intense not because it's graphic - audiences primed by the "Saw" films have been shown much worse - but because it really happened. Boyle drags us into that moment to share, as much as he can, what Ralston endured in that canyon.

But by sticking with that moment, viewers are rewarded with a life-affirming and triumphant final act that makes all the discomfort and pain worth it. The film's final moments are among the most joyous and victorious I've seen in years and a parting shot of the real Aron Ralston only underscores the story's heroic nature.

Lately, it seems that every "great" film has to feature a tragic ending. While that sometimes is the ending that fits, the truth is I miss being elated as the credits roll. With "127 Hours," Boyle and Franco take us to some dark and dangerous places, but reward us with an ending that reminds us of the heroism of which we're all capable.

This is one of 2010's best films.

Originally posted at and in the November 21 edition of The Source.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.