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Monday, Nov. 1, 2010

127 Hours

Danny Boyle film documents Aron Ralston’s harrowing tale

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The teeming multitudes shown under the opening credits of 127 Hours are a clue. Extreme athlete Aron Ralston hikes, bikes and climbs in the remotest wilderness partly because he wants to be far from the crowd—isolated even from those who love him. He doesn’t always pick up phone calls from his family; when he leaves for Blue John Canyon in the nearly Martian desolation of the Utah desert, he tells no one.

This becomes a problem when he topples down a crevice, pinning his right forearm beneath a boulder. Trapped deep within a crack in the earth with little food or water, Ralston realizes that if he had left word, rescuers might know where to search. He is struck by a glum epiphany: “I chose all of this.” He might soon be dead.

Working from Ralston’s memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, director and co-writer Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) accepts the challenge of transforming an incident best left to the imagination into a film. He more or less succeeds—partly because he imaginatively intercuts Ralston’s lonely hours in the pit with snippets of the young man’s memories, dreams and delusions, but mostly because of James Franco’s performance. With his winsome smile when things are good and tightly focused determination when they’re not, Franco plays Ralston as the sympathetic protagonist in a tense drama of survival.

We like Ralston, rooting for him even if we agree that his problem is of his own making—not just because of his tendency toward isolation, but because his rad-sports attitude is a bit over the top. There was no reason for his fall into the crevice except his feeling of being indestructible. Ralston was overconfident and over-caffeinated, a merry glint of madness in his eyes on the day of his accident.

Why? Despite Ralston’s flashbacks, Boyle shows little about him. He comes from a caring family and isn’t socially maladroit. In an early scene before his fall, he bumps into a pair of female hikers and charms them, commenting that the remote canyon is “the one place in America where you’re pretty much guaranteed not to run into a weirdo.” He has a point, but as with his reckless athleticism, he pushes his point too far. Much publicized at the time the incident occurred in 2003, Ralston is forced to take extreme measures to ensure his survival. The result is hard to imagine and even more painful to watch.