Danny Boyle's fact-based, fast-paced 127 Hours throttles forward with the same freewheeling energy of his previous effort, the Best Picture Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle employs split screens, rapid-fire edits and light-suffused flashbacks; every frame of this movie seems electrically charged. What might easily have been the most solemn and depressing story imaginable -- a mountain climber trapped by a rock must decide to cut off his own arm if he hopes to survive -- instead proves kinetic, even exultant: A celebration of life, and all its extreme highs and agonizing lows.
In 2003, Aron Ralston (James Franco) tells no one that he is headed off on a hiking trip in Utah's Blue John Canyon. When a boulder comes loose and pins his arm against the canyon wall, he finds himself trapped. Over the course of the next five days, as he drinks his own urine to remain (barely) hydrated, he comes to realize that there's only one way out -- and it involves a very dull knife.
Working from Ralston's 2004 memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) introduce a few supporting characters, including two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) who go diving inside the canyons with Ralston, just before he sets off by himself. For the most part, though, this is a movie that features one character stuck in the same place for virtually the entire running time.
That 127 Hours never once turns boring is some kind a miracle. Part of this has to do with Franco's physically grueling, extraordinarily affecting performance, which takes us through every stage of Ralston's thought processes over the course of those five days, the initial disbelief followed by the sheer panic followed by the rampant hallucinations. The other thing that makes 127 Hours so effective is that Boyle and Beaufoy don't try to overstate the film's case. Ralston wasn't some sort of noble hero or tragic martyr: Just a guy who screwed up and had to make the best of a lousy situation. The few scenes that do hint at a larger thematic meaning -- flashbacks in which Ralston thinks about family, friends and ex-lovers, and comes to realize that being a lone wolf isn't a sustainable or even sane way of getting through life -- are as subtle as they are swift.
The squeamish should be warned: Even though Boyle doesn't dwell too long on the famed arm-cutting incident, the powers of sound and suggestion are plenty; I watched the climactic sequence curled into a ball with both hands covering my eyes. There's also perhaps something a little tawdry about the way the movie keeps teasing us with what's coming, but then waits until the very end to finally deliver the goods. (It's like a porn movie with nature photography instead of sex, and dismemberment in lieu of a money shot.)
For the most part, though, 127 Hours is a blast, and the rare movie that knows not to overstay: Just when the claustrophobia starts to settle in and you start to think you can't watch another minute of this harrowing, real-life horror movie, the closing credits roll.