Wikipedia defines survival as “the struggle to remain alive and living.” Next to that definition should be a picture of Aron Ralston, the poster boy for survival at any cost. His name may not ring a bell but his remarkable story of how he literally found himself between a rock and a hard place will make you wonder how far you would go to stay alive. You see, Ralston is the American mountain climber who was trapped by a boulder for five days in May 2003 and was only able to free himself by amputating his own arm. His story is told in unflinching detail in 127 Hours, starring James Franco, a film is so intense some audience members have suffered panic attacks and lightheadedness.
That reaction is the result of careful direction by Danny Boyle. Because we essentially know how the story is going to end Boyle keeps us along for the ride by building up tension slowly as he moves toward the movie’s Big Scene ®. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is rather masterful filmmaking. When he does get to the amputation scene (admit it, you’re curious) he creates a movie topping sequence (it starts to get grim at about the hour-and-fifteen minute mark) with visuals that leave something to your imagination and a jarring electronic soundtrack that is less grueling but more effective than any cutting scene from the “Saw” series. It may not show everything, but trust me, it’ll be a long time before you order a rare steak or beef tartar in a restaurant again.
Boyle fleshes out the bare bones of the story, adding in heartbreaking hallucinations of survival and a montage of soda commercials that illustrates what happens when thirst goes beyond the physical to become a mental thing.
It’s all tied together by Boyle’s visual sense. He uses a variety of shooting styles to really give us the idea of why Aron loves this terrain and how dangerous and extreme it can be. It gives us a feeling for both the isolated vastness and beauty of Aron’s surroundings.
At the heart of it all is James Franco as Aron. Like Ryan Reynolds in “Buried” this is a performance that isn’t limited by its physical circumstances. Reynolds spent ninety minutes in a box and gave the performance of his career while Franco, trapped by a boulder, alone in a tight uncomfortable space does some seriously good work. His choices of roles have been esoteric of late—playing Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” for instance—but in “127 Hours” he has found the part that should earn him some well deserved recognition from the Academy.
“127 Hours” isn’t an easy movie. When Aron tells himself “don’t pass out” during the amputation scene he could well be talking to the audience as well. Imagine the most uncomfortable you’ve ever been. Now multiply that by a thousand. No wait, a million. That’s the experience Boyle and Franco are offering up, a grueling but worthwhile story of survival against all odds.
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