Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a true-life adventure that turns into a one-man disaster movie — and the darker it gets, the more enthralling it becomes. Boyle is the floridly intense pop-poetic stylist who made Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, and though it would be accurate to call him a fabulist, here, in a change of pace, he summons all of his visual zap to tell the story of what happened to Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old hiker, as authentically as possible. The trick of the movie (which comes out Nov. 5) is that it knows that the real adventure is what’s going on in Aron’s head.
On a Friday night in April 2003, Aron (James Franco), a carefree bohemian jock, out for pleasure but a bit of a loner, leaves his home in Aspen, Colo., to indulge in his favorite ritual of escape, driving out to the miles and miles of fabulous twisty red-rock formations that make up Canyonlands National Park in Utah — the ultimate adult jungle gym. He goes there to get high on the landscape, a sun-baked piece of geological sculpture so full of hidden claustrophobic passageways that it suggests a Road Runner cartoon as designed by Antoni Gaudí. And he goes there to get high on himself.
Boyle’s split-screen images have a surreal clarity, linked to Aron’s childlike ”Oh, wow!” gaze. Yet Aron, a veteran climber, is so cocky about his expertise that his skill shades off into recklessness. When he meets a pair of attractive hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) who could use a tour guide, he leads them to a sandwiched-in cliff, then has them all slide down to an underground hot spring. They seem to have found paradise (for Aron, it’s a heavenly chance to show off), but there’s a slightly threatening undertow to his bravura. Is he transcending danger or courting it?
We find out soon enough, when Aron, on his own again (the way he seems to like it), falls through an ancient crack in the earth and a boulder tumbles right on top of him. He winds up wedged between two chalkstone walls, the boulder having lodged itself, with a kind of horrific granite permanence, against his crushed right arm. Forty feet below the canyon surface, his legs a-dangle, his cries for help unheeded, he’s literally caught between a rock and a hard place.
Since the real Aron Ralston wrote a book, called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, about his experience, then became a public figure on talk shows, you may go into 127 Hours knowing exactly what he did to survive. Yet in no way does that diminish the film’s psychological suspense, its feverish drama of one dude trying to edge his way out of an abyss. 127 Hours is as gripping a tale of stranded ingenuity as Cast Away, as Aron works to save himself by adjusting to his new reality. He grinds away at the boulder with a cheap pocket knife, then drops it, aghast, and picks it up with his toes; he comes to rely on the 15 minutes of sunlight that brush the wall at 9:30 a.m. And he keeps himself chipper by rambling a diary of his experience into a camcorder.
His words amount to a ruefully snarky monologue of fate from a member of a generation baptized in irony, and Franco, in a tour de force, uses those words to capture Aron’s ordeal from the outside in. With his toothy, slightly dazed beach-bum confidence, the actor takes us through the Five Stages of Survival: detachment, jokes, rage, revelation, and doing-what-you-gotta-do. He gets us rooting for his bluster under pressure.
Here, as in Trainspotting, Boyle proves a master of altered states. Once Aron realizes that he’s not getting (or going) anywhere, he begins to descend into fantasy (there’s a trippy montage of soft-drink ads when he’s thirsty). And what he comes to see, in a delirium of enlightenment, is that his trapped state is what he’s been running from his whole life. That boulder was waiting for him. 127 Hours offers a daunting challenge to a filmmaker: How do you rivet an audience when your protagonist can’t even move? The answer is that there’s an awesome freedom to Danny Boyle’s filmmaking. And freedom, too, is the theme of the movie. Aron may be pinned, but his soul gets unlocked, and when he finally faces up to what he has to do, he’s not just cutting off his trapped appendage. He’s cutting off the part of himself that was only pretending to be alive. 127 Hours is a salute to do-it-yourself existential bravery, and an ingeniously crafted one, but what makes it cathartic is that it’s about a guy who gets high by taking the ultimate plunge. A