Others heard the story of rock climber Aron Ralston's dayslong ordeal, trapped by a boulder that pinned down his arm, and winced. Danny Boyle saw a tale of endurance and triumph, a spiritual journey in which a young man comes to terms with the phrase "No man is an island."
127 Hours is the remarkable film that the director of Slumdog Millionaire and his Slumdog screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, conjured out of that excruciating tale. It's a tribute to Boyle's filmic flair and the humanity he wears on his sleeve that we can recall how Ralston's 127-hour saga ends and still be stunned, moved and thrilled by the finale.
James Franco carries this gorgeous picture, giving us Ralston as grinning Extreme Sports cliché. He works in a mountaineering equipment shop and takes off on solo weekend trips, hurtling across buttes on his mountain bike, exulting in nature and even in the spills he takes along the way. The film's opening minutes, with Ralston narrating his gonzo adventures on his personal camcorder, show us just how long it takes him to get to the middle of nowhere and how psyched he is to arrive.
On the day of his accident, he stumbles upon a couple of cute hikers (Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn) and disarmingly offers to show them the Blue John Canyon that only he knows. Ralston's open-faced grin advertises a big, open heart, and Franco effortlessly conveys the guy's innocence, and his lust for life.
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The girls move on, after an adventurous side trip (videotaped) to a water hole, and not before Aron has promised to come to their party that night. Then he dashes up a hill and out of sight. By the time he takes his big tumble, there is nobody within miles of him. He's going to miss that party.
Boyle and Beaufoy are fascinated by the kid's reaction to his plight. He's self-reliant, with all sorts of things in his pack that might help. None do. But he won't panic. He even keeps his camcorder diary up to date as he tries this and that, makes sure to hydrate and rest between attempts at self-rescue. He has taken one calculated risk too many, and he is perfectly OK with that. He bundles up, as best he can, overnight, and he marvels at the way the light plays down into the crack he's stuck in at sunrise. Here's a guy who lives every day as if it might be his last.
But in dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations, Aron remembers the girl he wouldn't commit to (Clémence Poésy), and the mistakes he made with his parents and others that are reflected in what has happened to him. He's a lone wolf, living for himself. And nobody knows where he is or that he's missing.
Boyle, Beaufoy, Franco and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have created a film of breathtaking scenery, awe-inspiring silences and a perilous puzzle. Is this Into the Wild, where only a trace of him will ever be found, or will he find a solution? And will we want to watch it?
It's a tribute to them all that this myopic Man vs. His Wild Self drama is as utterly absorbing and thrilling as it is.