127 Hours isn’t a movie that you “like.” It simply isn’t designed that way. The film may have been nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards and it may hold a ridiculously high approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but most of those positive reviews come from people who “appreciated” the film rather than people who “liked” it — all of which is a roundabout way of saying 127 Hours is an incredibly well-made film but a tough one to sit through.
Based on Aron Ralston’s memoir Between A Rock And A Hard Place, 127 Hours details the harrowing experience that the mountaineer went through in spring of 2003. Ralston, an engineer by trade, spent most of his free-time hiking and mountain climbing. A routine climb at Utah’s Blue John Canyon turned into a character defining moment for Ralston, when a falling boulder pinned his arm to the side of rock wall. Because Ralston lived like a hermit, he spent the better part of five days struggling to stave off death and delirium without anyone knowing he’d gone missing.
It’s not a spoiler to say Ralston survived the ordeal, because if he hadn’t 127 Hours would be a very different film. Director Danny Boyle, whose previous credits include 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, was drawn to the film because of its inspirational takeaway. The movie opens with a series of quick cuts and interesting edits meant to show the fast-paced life of our protagonist, but after that we’re mostly confined to the cavern where Ralston was trapped. Every so often we’ll get a sweeping landscape shot courtesy of cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, or a flashback to Aron’s childhood, but even they are used primarily to contrast the confined nature of the cavern.
Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy smartly framed the film in such a way that Ralston’s starvation-induced delusions double for epiphanies. This too allows us to leave the cave and makes 127 Hours’ plot progression feel less drawn out. Unfortunately, the device becomes a bit heavy-handed when Ralston begins seeing glimpses into his own future, a future that is confirmed in the film’s epilogue.
As Ralston, James Franco is put through the ringer. In some respects, the film plays out like a 90 minute acting exercise for Hollywood’s most eclectic actor. The beginning of the film requires Franco to be charming and cocky, both of which come natural to him. But, later in the film, when Ralston is forced to experience all five stages of grief, Franco more than earns his keep. You understand his denial, empathize with his anger and eventually you come to accept the reality his situation.
Because 127 Hours is largely a character piece, there are very few other actors in the film. Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn have arguably the largest supporting roles, despite the fact that they only appear in a largely fictionalized prologue. However, Treat Williams and Clémence Poésy are more memorable as Ralston’s father and ex-girlfriend, respectively.
127 Hours is ultimately meant to be a static film. Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy want you to feel the same sense of claustrophobia that Ralston did during the five days he spent trapped. Alas, that claustrophobic feeling isn’t one that will leave you contented, nor will Boyle’s direction, which can be both galvanizing and ham-fisted. Nevertheless, A.R. Rahman’s emotional score and a tremendous performance from Franco do compensate for some of the film’s imperfections.