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127 Hours

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/05/10 15:32:17

"Cast Away 2: Cast Harder."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"127 Hours" is an indelible physical experience with a bit of spiritual glop ladled onto it to help the bitter medicine go down.

In 2003, mountain climber Aron Ralston (played here by James Franco) fell into a Utah canyon, his right arm pinned by a boulder. There he stayed for about five days, trying everything he could think of with the limited tools he had, until finally he broke the arm and sawed it off with a dull multi-use knife. This is not a spoiler, since Ralston's story was told thousands of times that year, after he made it back to civilization. Ralston is today a husband and father, and he still climbs and hikes alone, though he now takes care to tell people where he's going.

Aside from a prologue of sorts, with Ralston acting as guide to a couple of lost young hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and a crazyquilt of hallucinatory flashbacks whose fabric gets denser as the movie approaches climax, it's pretty much a one-man show. Franco brings a heedless, arrogant physicality to the role; Ralston is so familiar with this particular stretch of rocks and crevices he hops across them the way you would negotiate your back yard, instinctually, thoughtlessly. Once Ralston is trapped about fifteen minutes into the 95-minute film the burden is on Franco to keep the tension coiled while avoiding monotony. He doesn't even have a volleyball to talk to, though he spills his guts to his camcorder, at one point fantasizing a talk-show host deriding him for getting into this fix. There's wit and ingenuity in the performance.

For a good while, the same is true of the direction. Danny Boyle's recent films have left me cold I was one of the few unmoved by his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. But 127 Hours, which Boyle also wrote (with Simon Beaufoy), captures physical stress at its utmost. The style is jazzy but clean, never obtrusive. The landscape is full of rocks that look soft and round but will crush you. The elements can warm or punish. The cramped geography of Ralston's death-trap is imposing. When Ralston empties his backpack, we see his few supplies, which help keep him going but in the long run are useless. In the end there is only a knife.

All of this is first-rate, but a life lesson sneaks around the margins. Ralston has said a vision of a future son kept him alive, and we see this. We also hear a lot about Ralston's commitment-phobia. He was always, it seems, running away from people into nature's embrace. Finally the dialogue comes right out with it: Ralston and his boulder have been on a collision course all his life. He needed the rock to show him how much he needed people. Really, drinking his own urine to stay hydrated and losing his arm was the best thing that could've happened to him. Ralston currently enjoys a lucrative side career on the corporate-lecture circuit, presumably parlaying his experience into bromides about perseverance and, heh, reaching out.

The movie buys into this. I suppose it's human nature to ascribe deeper spiritual meaning to a horrific event, though Christopher Hitchens' current dignified struggle refutes this. But artists should be more tough-minded. I wouldn't kick so much at the soppy "everything happens for a reason" telegram if the preceding hour or so weren't so harsh and true, expressed in sharp pure cinema. (At one point the filmmaking brings you close to what it might feel like to saw agonizingly through nerves.)

"127 Hours" is about three-quarters of a minimalist classic, an epic battle reduced to one body and one rock. But slapping a happy face on the whole ghastly event, as if it happened solely to improve Ralston's character and inspire others to do likewise, is more than a little bizarre.

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