REVIEW: James Franco Bids a Farewell to Arm in Danny Boyle's Strangely Cheerful 127 Hours
Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is a jaunty little exploitation picture with prestige movie cred. By now you probably already know that in 127 Hours, James Franco's character -- based on real-life adventure boy Aron Ralston -- saws his forearm off with a cheap, not-particularly-sharp multiuse tool, an act of desperation that's necessary to save his life when he becomes trapped in a claustrophobically narrow Utah canyon. That arduous sawing -- it's more a smooshy kind of hacking, if you want to know the truth -- comes near the end of the movie, though it's also the dramatic centerpiece, the moment we're all waiting for from minute one. There's no suspense in 127 Hours, only anticipation: We know what we're there for; we just need to hang around to see how it plays out.
But damned if Boyle, with the help of his star, doesn't make the experience almost... cheerful. You might even leave the theater whistling a little tune. How the hell does Boyle pull that off? None of this is intended to undersell the horror that Ralston suffered in real life. (The movie is based on his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, adapted by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy.) And Franco is such a warm, sympathetic presence that watching him suffer is no picnic. Yet the most excruciating moments of 127 Hours don't set its overall tone. As unpleasant as the arm-sawing is to watch, by the time it comes along, it's just a necessary means to an end (or a stump). What matters more is the part of the story that comes afterward, the chunk of life that Aron would have missed out on if he hadn't the fortitude to sever his own limb. Boyle just alludes to that life, and only at the very end of the movie, but it's a specter that gives shape to everything before it. As Boyle seems to see it, Aron didn't leave much of anything behind in that cave: He took the valuables and ran.
The movie opens with a portent, montage-style, of what's to come. Franco's Aron is getting ready to leave his apartment for what ought to be a routine canyoneering adventure: We see the all-important water bottle being filled, in the sink, to overflowing; a hand gropes on a shelf for a Swiss army knife that's just out of reach -- we can see it, but our unfortunate hero can't, the movie's first little sick joke. Everything else in the story is rather straightforward, albeit presented via crazypants, show-off filmmaking: In telling the story of Aron's predicament and ultimate triumph, Boyle uses numerous split-screen effects, lots of zig-zaggy cutting, all kinds of hallucinatory flashback trickery, and close-ups of certain things you probably would rather not look too closely at (like a parched contact lens being pinched off a bloodshot eye or a pint of preserved pee slooshing around in a camel bag).
Aron's trip involves driving out to a glorious locale (Canyonlands National Park, in Utah), then clambering onto his mountain bike to get to the specific slot canyon he's interested in exploring. Along the way he meets two cute hikers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), whom he'll think of frequently in the six days to come: After he says good-bye to the girls -- having impressed them as a thoroughly loopy, Phish-loving, rock-climbing nerd, a part Franco plays to the hilt -- he sets off on his solo journey. He steps on a rock he thinks is secure, only to find that it's not: He slips into a crevice, and the boulder tumbles after him, pinning his arm to the wall.
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