Danny Boyle is no stranger to claustrophobic settings. Before he won a well-deserved Oscar two years ago for Slumdog Millionaire, the British director and screenwriter made 28 Days Later ..., in which the zombie apocalypse barrels down on a small English town, and Trainspotting, about young drug addicts steeped in paranoia, fatigue, and misery.
Those experiences serve him well in 127 Hours, which is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a 27-year-old mountain climber who got pinned by a boulder in Utah in 2003 and whose only chance of survival was to amputate his trapped arm. Ralston wrote a book about his ordeal, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, so you can pretty much figure out how things turned out.
For much of the movie's 90 minutes, Aron (played by James Franco) is on his own — hiking, climbing, writhing in pain underneath a giant rock — so it takes a deft filmmaker to pull off all this isolation. It also takes skill to make the climactic scene's mix of squirm-inducing butchery and endurance work, and the man behind the ultra-bloody 28 Days Later ... is more than up to the task.
We first meet Aron the night before his fateful hike, as he packs his gear and makes the long haul to a canyon for another of his solo adventures. He meets two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) on the trail and offers to lead them up the side of a rock. He's fun, charming, and instantly likable. And they're the only two people who have any clue where he's heading, since Aron isn't fond of telling folks where he disappears to.
Soon, Aron is on his own again, scaling rocks, hopping chasms, and having the time of his life. But then something goes wrong: He slips in a crevice, and a boulder pins his right hand. He tries pulling it free, but the rock is too heavy and his arm too stuck.
Minutes pass, then hours, and then days. With plenty of time to kill, Aron reflects on his life and relationships with his friends, family, and girlfriend, all of whom show up in hazy flashbacks. (127 Hours is also a story of contemplation and redemption: Aron isn't a very good son or boyfriend, we learn.) He's in the middle of nowhere with a limited supply of food and water. He also has a cheap pocketknife, and on the fifth day, near death, he realizes what he has to do to survive.
Franco is at his best here, especially when he talks about his life and his dilemma to the video camera he's trapped with. But this isn't a one-man show. Boyle is just as much the star here; his hyperactive direction keeps things moving, even when it's just Aron and all those rocks onscreen.
Boyle uses some of his typically flashy camera tricks in 127 Hours: skewed angles, first-person viewpoints, split screens. But he also lets his camera just take in the gorgeous vistas surrounding Aron. In a way, it's the most open — and openhearted — Boyle has ever been. It's a riveting piece of filmmaking and one of the best movies of the year.
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