I suppose it's a testament to the supreme craft and professionalism of Danny Boyle and his crew that watching 127 Hours feels a bit like having surgery; the kind where you're asked to bite down on something. It's gut-wrenching in a queasy, horror-movie way – a shield-your-eyes-from-the-screen, chuckle-in-relieved-astonishment sort of experience, done incredibly well. Which is to say: you probably already know whether or not you're interested.
Then again, if you're at all familiar with the book or true story on which the movie's based, you probably already knew. There is, for once, truth in advertising. This is a film about a dude who goes exploring in a remote part of Utah's Canyonlands National Park, has a mishap, and gets his arm pinned under a rock. And gets stuck, alone, with a single Nalgene water bottle, a sandwich, and no cell phone. And eventually... Well, either you know how the story ends or you don't, in which case you can likely guess. Suffice it to say that what does happen, we see and hear in excruciatingly painful detail – including what may be the single most horrifying sound effect in movie history.
This may sound like odd subject matter for the flashy, exuberant Boyle. 127 Hours is not his first attempt at a genre film, but his others – the zombie flick 28 Days Later and the underrated sci-fi drama Sunshine – both had an epic sweep that's the antithesis of this purposefully compact story. Literally trapped in a narrow crevasse, Boyle instead expands the film through his protagonist, but there too, his ambitions are modest. It becomes, believe it or not, a sort of brutal coming-of-age story.
Aron Ralston is precisely the sort of inveterate hotshot you'd expect to be played by James Franco at his most roguishly charming. As the film opens, he sets off for a solo bike ride into the rocky Utah wilderness, occasionally videotaping chunks of it for posterity. When he takes a spill off his bike and tumbles to the ground, he grins and takes a picture. A couple of hours in, he runs into a pair of very pretty, very lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and takes them to a hidden underground lagoon that you have to fall into from a narrow gap in the rock above. Before suddenly dropping into the darkness below, he gives the girls a meaningful look and says: "All you gotta remember, is that everything's gonna be okay."
This is the character arc at the heart of the film – the tempering of Aron's devil-may-care confidence, and the realization that he shouldn't take the world around him for granted. "I wish I had returned all of your phone calls," he tearfully tells his mother in one of the video messages he records half out of boredom, half as a kind of prayer. It's a familiar theme, echoing among other things the "happiness only real when shared" revelation that hit Into the Wild's Christopher McCandless too late. I was reminded also of The Lookout, a better film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an arrogant star athlete humbled by a crippling head injury.
Boyle does manage to make at least some of this stuff sing. He blasts out of the gate with a hyperactive split-screen montage, a burst of color and energy that serves as the perfect introduction to Aron (and also telegraphs several of the things that later contribute to his misery). The interlude with the hikers is a coup of screenwriting economy, dispensing a tremendous amount of information about our protagonist in a short time and with very little dialogue. After the accident, Boyle finds elegant and often moving ways to depict his flashbacks, mental digressions and, eventually, hallucinations, most of them involving his family.
James Franco, who is on screen alone for the vast majority of the film's short running time, is perfectly cast and excellent. A lot of 127 Hours' medical-procedure-like squeamishness actually comes from him – e.g. his look of stunned incomprehension as the dust settles and he first beholds his arm crushed under a boulder, and his still-disbelieving frustration as he realizes that it ain't gonna come loose. (The utter helplessness he feels is clearly new for him.) As things start looking dire, his pain and heartbreak are palpable. Watch his eyes as he videotapes his first message, informing the world that he's "in pretty deep doo doo here." It's the look of someone whose world has just been rocked in the most profound way imaginable.
The movie ends with another burst of energy, a Hail Mary aimed at winning back some of the audience goodwill that may have been lost during the parts that play more like horror than awards bait. It's not quite convincing, and a Slumdog Millionaire-like populist ascent seems unlikely. But 127 Hours is extremely effective as a thriller, and moderately so as a minor character study. Adjust expectations accordingly and you'll have a good time.