Barnum and Bailey combined couldn’t deliver the same showbiz impact as Danny Boyle on a good day, and with this film, he’s having one of the best. This is his absolutely assured, tremendously crafted new movie, with a convincing performance from James Franco. It turns on an act of horrible violence, and yet it doesn’t feel like a horror film or a violent one. It’s based on a true story, a claim that’s usually the prelude to a fantastically dishonest array of evasions and slippery half-truths. Not here. Though there are a couple of minor embellishments, Boyle sticks to the facts. Rather the single, inexhaustibly astonishing fact. I have watched 127 Hours twice, and anxiously replayed its central event dozens of times in my head. Each time I am as freaked out as if I had no idea what was going to happen.
In 2003, Aron Ralston was a climber and extreme sports enthusiast who one weekend went out hiking in the remote Blue John Canyon in Utah. He had told no one where he was going. He is here swaggeringly self-confident and on even more of an endorphin rush than usual after an encounter with two attractive women hikers who appear to be sizing up the possibility of abseiling into his pants at the party they’re throwing later that night. Ralston’s date with destiny begins when he starts a dangerous canyon climb and his arm gets jammed under a colossal boulder. He is trapped. Food and water are running out. Aron has a small pocketknife and now faces some tough choices about what he will have to leave behind. By snapping his arm against the rock and sawing through the flesh with his knife, it should be possible to get out of there in most of one piece. Three-and-a-half limbs out of four isn’t bad.
The great thing about the title is that it doesn’t merely refer to the duration of Aron’s ordeal — it’s specifically the length of time needed for him, mentally, to confront the reality of what he must do. As played by Franco, Ralston is pig-headed and conceited but also intelligent and likable. You feel for him, and feel with him.
In interviews, Boyle has indicated that the meaning of this story is that it made Ralston a better person; he learned that he should swallow his pride and ask for help a little more. Well, that could be true. But I think the compelling thing about 127 Hours is that it has no message, it has no metaphorical meaning. Aron Ralston one day cut his own arm off. And that’s it. Visually, Boyle’s film is compelling and there is a poetry in Ralston’s vulnerable, fragile flesh being crushed under the weight of a landmass trillions of years in the making. It is an exciting, touching film, which Boyle brings off with enormous skill. It’s a skill for which lesser directors would give their … Well, they’d give an awful lot.