Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews 127 Hours
Director Danny Boyle has joined forces with his Slumdog Millionaire production team for 127 Hours, the adaptation of climber Aron Ralston’s real-life, five-day struggle to survive in the Utah wilderness after his right arm was pinned by a boulder. The result is a gripping film that not only does the story justice, but manages to present it with a compelling visual style - as well as offering a great performance from James Franco.
However, 127 Hours is not for the faint of heart – or the weak of stomach.
In case you’re unfamiliar with 127 Hours, or Ralston’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, upon which the film is based, here’s the official synopsis from Fox Searchlight Pictures:
“127 Hours is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston's remarkable adventure to save himself after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah. Over the next five days Ralston examines his life and survives the elements to finally discover he has the courage and the wherewithal to extricate himself by any means necessary, scale a 65 foot wall and hike over eight miles before he is finally rescued. Throughout his journey, Ralston recalls friends, lovers, family, and the two hikers he met before his accident. Will they be the last two people he ever had the chance to meet?”
Despite the pre-show knowledge that Ralston did not die at the bottom of a Canyon in Utah, 127 Hours is still a riveting and suspenseful film. Boyle actually uses moviegoers’ familiarity with the story to ratchet up the tension – cranking up the sound of Franco’s hand sliding across the chalkstone canyon wall, prior to the mishap – pushing the impending accident to the front of viewers' minds.
Similarly, once Ralston is trapped, we know it’s only a matter of time before this man is going to cut his own arm off. The director utilizes this inevitability by capturing Ralston’s process leading up to the moment as he flirts with the idea for a couple days - while simultaneously failing in other, less drastic, attempts.
A film about a guy trapped in one place for over an hour might sound claustrophobic, or flat-out boring, but Boyle does a great job of opening the movie world up by allowing the audience into Ralston’s head – which is just as fascinating as the physical duties of self-preservation. While the implementation of flashbacks and hallucinations might sound ridiculous, they fit elegantly with Ralston’s deteriorating health as well as mounting regrets and desires. These moments can be chilling or even offer a brief shot of humor.
However, Boyle, to his credit, never allows these digressions to be too much of an escape - Franco only appears as a fragment or shadow in them, rarely fully formed. Instead of on-the-nose moments of inspiration, the flashes examine Ralston’s desperation, at both a micro and macro level, from a failed relationship to the realization that his disregard for others has led him to the canyon deathtrap. It’s only when Ralston gets a glimpse of his future that he is able to face what is necessary to save his life.
The execution of the in-canyon reality and the Ralston mindscape could have been an absolute disaster, even with Danny Boyle at the helm. However, Franco owns his performance, portraying Ralston’s journey convincingly - from an uninhibited adventurer to a physically and mentally strained man, capable of carving his own headstone into a canyon wall. Franco, as an actor, is clearly reveling in the extremes afforded by the role - from the fearful attempts to free his hand to a loopy talk-show interview he does with himself. It’s interesting to see the actor test the boundaries of his performance but it never comes at the cost of believability.
A lot has been made of the story about Telluride attendees fainting during the screening of 127 Hours, but the film is not overly graphic – especially by today’s standards. The movie has a number of cringe-inducing moments but squeamish viewers shouldn’t be entirely deterred from seeing the film in theaters. Though, they should probably plan to keep their eyes closed during a few of the more graphic moments.
It’s understandable that some audiences might still find 127 Hours to be too graphic, or too abstract, or even too preachy at times. While it might seem as though the movie is built around the headline premise (man cuts off his own arm in order to survive), given that the book is a meditation on life and love, it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that the film is pushing a message. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a filmmaker could have told this story without diving into the pain, both physically and mentally, of the event.
127 Hours is a strong dramatic thriller with creative direction by Danny Boyle and a commanding performance from James Franco. Aron Ralston’s story is certainly compelling and the filmmakers did an eloquent job of portraying the details of his struggle – as well as the emotional challenges of doing whatever it takes to confront death.
If you’re still trying to make up your mind, check out the trailer for 127 Hours below:
127 Hours is currently in limited release.