Much like 2003’s Phone Booth, the strength in 127 Hours lies in the intensity of its star’s performance. And James Franco’s performance will go down as one of the greatest of a generation.
The film – helmed by Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle – is based on the remarkable true story of Aron Ralston, an avid hiker and mountain climber who becomes trapped underneath a boulder while on a solo hiking expedition in a Utah canyon. To free himself, he amputates his arm using a blunt Leatherman knockoff, still managing to hike around eight miles before he’s finally rescued.
The beauty of this film is not in the plot. Ralston’s story is well-known and the film itself is based on Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place. But Boyle manages to take an almost legendary story and film it in such a way that even though you know he’s going to be okay, your heart is in your mouth for most of the film. It’s terrifying, awe-inspiring and a truly intense experience.
Even though the majority of 127 Hours is filmed in a cramped, dusty space, Boyle manages to keep the film moving at a rollicking pace. The movie starts imbued with a sense of pure joy – Ralston loves what he does, and he’s such a frequent hiker he doesn’t even bother to tell anybody where he’s going anymore. He runs into two female hikers and leads them on a side-trip to a massive waterhole, before jogging back over the mountains on his way. “I don’t think we figured in his day at all,” they quip – and it’s true.
But one slip, seemingly inconsequential, and the whole feeling changes – though not as abruptly as you would imagine. Instead, through the use of intense close-ups, another exquisite score from Slumdog collaborator AR Rahman and one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen, the mood changes. Boyle’s fascinated with Ralston’s attitude and self-reliance – he’s innovative and determined, refusing to panic. His emotions range from “Wow, that was stupid – now how do I fix it?” to frustration, acceptance and that final attempt at self-preservation. It’s an exhausting experience, an absolute emotional rollercoaster – but it’s also inspirational and a true story of the strength of the human spirit.
The biggest triumph – and I’m sure the biggest challenge for Boyle and his team – was the casting. And Franco doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. A film with a character so isolated and so introspective needs an actor with impressive skill – and Franco, who is best-known to mainstream audiences for his role in Spider-Man, is mind-blowing. He rarely shares the screen with other characters, and if he does it’s in the form of flashbacks and through his video camera. Despite that, Franco is entirely absorbing – he’s expressive, both physically and emotionally – and just so damn likable. We’re cheering for him, at the same time marvelling at his inner strength.
The movie is also an absolute delight of cinematography. Filmed in Utah, at a place famed for its exquisite geology, it moves between a riot of warm colours – oranges, reds, browns – to the darker, cramped crevice that Ralston falls into. The movement between flashbacks, looking through the lens of Ralston’s video recorder and the intense claustrophobia of his reality is almost seamless.
And the much-hyped amputation scene? Is it any good? It’s better. The challenge for Boyle and his editing team was to show the arm being amputated without actually showing it – and so it’s the sound that is the worst part. It’s harrowing – and has even had some audience members feeling faint and requiring medical attention at some screenings. And if that’s not testament to the intensity of the scene, I don’t know what is.
It’s not a film for sensitive viewers, but it is an exquisite cinematic experience – and one of those films I can see myself watching time and time again.