Three years ago, the Onion A.V. Club ran a list of great films that are too painful to watch twice. That list has a new Number One. Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” takes a hellish premise that Jigsaw himself would be proud to call his own – mutilate yourself or die! – and turns it into a moving and even amusing testament to what men will do to survive. Best of all, the movie is careful not to paint Ralston as a victim because, well, he’s not. He got himself into this mess, and while his escape makes for a hell of a story, it’s a story that could have been prevented a million different ways.
Around 0-dark thirty in the morning, Aron Ralston (James Franco) skips out of his apartment for a day of climbing in Blue John Canyon in remote Utah. He serves as a de facto tour guide for a couple of lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before resuming his solo trek. As he’s descending into a canyon, a boulder Aron expected to support him comes loose, sending him hurtling down the narrow canyon, the boulder pinning his arm against the canyon wall. Aron has no phone, and he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. He stretches out his water supply as long as he can while fighting off delirium and using his dull multi-purpose knife to chip away at the boulder. Eventually, Aron accepts that if he doesn’t take drastic action quickly – yep, cut off his own arm – he will die.
While every other actor in the movie is a distant second to Franco in terms of screen time, Boyle is wise to prevent Aron’s predicament from resembling Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” We see Aron’s thoughts of his family, the girls he had met just hours earlier and his imaginings of the party they invited him to, and he even has an “Owl Creek Bridge” moment where he fantasizes about escaping and running to find a beautiful girl he loved and lost. He documents his trials with a handheld video camera, which Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who also adapted Boyle’s last movie, eight-time Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire”) use to inject a humorous bit where Franco plays both smarmy talk show host and reluctant guest, candidly addressing just how he got in this position in the first place. Oops, indeed.
Franco has clearly entered Phase II of his career. After scoring several lead roles in forgettable movies (“Annapolis,” “Tristan + Isolde”), Franco took a supporting role in “Milk” and delivered the first star turn of his career, stealing the movie from Sean Penn in the process. His performance here showcases his best qualities (affable, sly sense of humor) without forcing him to do anything too showy, and it makes for a perfect combination of actor and role. Everyone else in the movie is little more than a footnote. Lizzy Caplan (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), who plays Aron’s sister Sonja, has one off-camera speaking line, and is on screen twice. Fortunately, Franco is so watchable that you will neither notice nor care that he’s pretty much carrying this movie by himself. When the moment of truth finally comes, though, prepare to wince. Between the sound effects and the visuals (which, to Boyle’s credit, aren’t as graphic as they could be), it is the most excruciating five minutes you’ll see at the multiplexes this year, and possibly any other.
It’s interesting to think that a couple of years ago, Danny Boyle had been left for dead. People loved “Millions,” but no one went to see it, and after the disappointing sci-fi freakout “Sunshine,” it looked as though “28 Days Later” was just a fluke hit in a string of post-“Trainspotting” misfires. He got his swerve back with “Slumdog,” though, and with “127 Hours,” he manages to take a rather ghoulish premise and turn it into a breathtaking, pulse-pounding, unforgettable thriller. Good on you, mate.(4 / 5)
This originally ran November 22, 2010 on Bullz-Eye.com.