At first glance, the story of Aron Ralston is simply a tragedy. In 2003, the 28-year-old Colorado mountain climber had to go to horrifying extremes to escape entrapment in a Utah canyon. And yet as evidenced by his novel "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," Ralston's journey is really one of perseverance and, forgive the cliche, embracing life. However, bringing the tale to the big screen seemed arduous at best. How do you convey one man's immovable plight stuck between rocks for over five days without losing your audience? Enter director Danny Boyle.
Fresh off his Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for "Slumdog Millionaire," Ralston's tale wouldn't necessarily be the first project you'd expect to tackle, but Boyle has always confounded his fans and critics. From "Transpotting" to "Millions" to "Sunshine" to "28 Days Later," Boyle's subject matter has widely varied, but his visual flair and emotional instincts have not. He's assisted in this cause by James Franco, who simply gives the best performance of his career as Ralston. Having to captivate the dramatic ups and downs of Alston's ordeal over five days is no easy task and Franco channels the outdoor lover's energy and enthusiasm throughout.
The picture begins breathlessly straightforwardly as Ralston (Franco) sets out for a solo weekend getaway in the wilderness. With his headphones blasting rock music (hints are later that it's Phish), Ralston bikes over 17 miles until switching to foot as he nears beautiful Blue John Canyon. There he meets two young female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) who he assists in finding an underwater pool for a quick dip. It's one of the few extended sequences featuring Ralston interacting with real people and Franco captivates his goofy charisma easily. After leaving the ladies to pursue his own hike, he stops in Blue John Canyon to take a photo. At that point, a boulder slips and he falls with it only to have the rock pin against his right arm leaving him trapped with no one in sight or sound. Over the next 127 hours - hence the film's title - he endures numerous attempts to free himself while undergoing an increasingly metaphysical (for lack of a better term) journey.
This sequence of the film could have been claustrophobic and monotonous, but Boyle's keen eye instead fixate on how isolated Alston is from the rest of the world. Our hero may be trapped, but it's the loneliness you feel more from a distance than any sense of impending collapse. Through failed trial and error and with his water and food gone, Alston has a vision (true account) that spurns him to make a dramatic choice to live. How Boyle shoots this part of the picture is harrowing and intense and will no doubt disturb many viewers even though it could have been much more graphic in the wrong hands (and that didn't stop someone from fainting during the Telluride premiere). It's this moment, and Alston's subsequent walk to civilization that the film reaches a moving climax that would have been unforeseen through the film's energetic opening. It's a cinematic climax left this writer both moved and shaken, a rarity in this business to say the least.
Technically, Boyle is assisted by exemplary cinematography credited to both Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle. A.R. Rahman, who famously collaborated with Boyle on "Slumdog," is back for a second go around with new songs and compositions that eloquently fit the mood (most appear to feature Dido in the vocals). Rahaman is also pitch perfect in his score for the film's most dramatic moment, helping Boyle create the unexpectedly uplifting conclusion. All three will be key players in their categories as awards season progresses.
And, as evident by this review, accolades for Franco, Boyle and the film should be consistent throughout the year. And like Colin Firth in "The King's Speech," which also premiered at Telluride, it would be shocking if Franco wasn't nominated for Best Actor for his work.
There is a small list of filmmaker who have achieved creative success with back-to-back films over the years, but with "127 Hours" Danny Boyle has just joined the club.
"127 Hours" opens nationwide on Nov. 5.
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