At the outset of "127 Hours," Aron Ralston (James Franco), an adventurous young mountaineer, sets out for a weekend climb through a well known canyon in Utah. Ralston is what you would call an amateur-expert, a weekender who knows a lot more than the average thrill seeker. This knowledge and his comfort level with the task at hand probably works against him, however, as it makes him a bit cocky and allows him to break the number one rule of wilderness adventure: always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. Skipping this important step becomes a serious issue when Ralston takes a bad step and finds himself trapped in a crevice with his arm pinned between the rough rock wall and a boulder. Based on real life events, "127 Hours" focuses on the days that follow as Ralston's will is pushed to the limits, leading him to make a gut wrenching decision.
I avoided "Hours" for some time for two reasons: 1.) having followed these events when they were brought to life in 2003, I knew the eventual outcome. I'm fine with biographical films or the "based on a true story" tag line but at times events that are as fresh as these make it tough for me to enjoy the movie. 2.) more importantly, I was not sure I could take the visualization of the gruesome choices Ralston was forced to make. I'm not overly squeamish; I can handle battle scenes, even graphic ones, without pause but anything surgical gets to me. For example: I'm fine with the opening 15 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" but when the squad tries to fix up Giovanni Ribisi after he takes a bullet storming the machine gun turret...I nearly pass out every time. Inevitably, however, the power of Danny Boyle won me over.
Boyle's pulsating, frenetic style runs through the very heart of "Hours." The splashes of color and quick cuts bring flash to a narrative that quite frankly could have become boring without it. Flashbacks and hallucinations allow for a break from the potential monotony of a guy hanging alone in a desert cave and add depth to the Ralston character. Still, though, "Hours" rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Franco. The "solitary man" role is extremely risky for even the best actors in the world. Tom Hanks himself, perhaps the most likable actor of his generation, had a hard time conquering this role in "Cast Away." (Yes, that film made a ton of money but no, it was not nearly as universally appealing as most of Hanks' work was.) Franco, though, handles the pressure wonderfully, giving the performance of his life (naturally, given his Oscar nomination) and displaying an immense range that I personally wasn't sure he had. A scene in which he films himself essentially saying goodbye to his parents is sobering, heartbreaking, and perfectly genuine. Rumor has it that Franco got hold of the actual tape Ralston filmed while stuck and this scene in particular speaks to that idea. It's a palpable portrayal that carries the film.
And that brings us to the cringe-worthy finale, as Ralston is forced to choose between cutting his own arm off with a dull stocking stuffer utility knife or dying alone and dehydrated. If you have knowledge of the events, you know the choice he makes. And let me say, this is one of the most painful moments in film history. Boyle pulls no punches and in fact calls attention to Ralston's actions through the score and aforementioned shot selections. It is gruesome and bloody and I confess I had to turn away from the screen on multiple occasions. But by the same token, I didn't find it to be gratuitous. I mean, the dude is forced to cut his own arm off. It would be an injustice to Ralston and his story to shy away from the gory details. And because of the tension that Boyle and Franco build throughout the minutes that lead up to this event, the final cut feels less like a horrific loss and more like the attainment of freedom, as you would imagine it did in real life. It isn't easy to watch and I wouldn't recommend "127 Hours" to everyone but it is unquestionably an excellent film that showcases the ability of its lead beautifully.