127 Hours (2010): James Franco Stars in Boyle’s True-Life Thrilling Biopic

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Toronto Film Fest (Special Presentations)–Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” has a jet-propelled, live-wired energy. This tone is obvious from the beginning, when the director carves the frame into a triptych to reveal an almost frenzied feel for activity and emotion. The images of the vast Utah canyon landscapes have an iridescent intensity, and the digital images giving off a palpable sense of heat.
This is Boyle’s first film since “Slumdog Millionaire” swept the Oscar Awards two years ago, and as an eclectic and talented British director, he again reveals his versatility and ability to try something new and different. Primarily, the wonder is that the virtuoso of images and sounds has found a fascinating way to breathe some energy to a fairly standard film format, the true-life adventure tale that goes horribly awry.
Co-scripting with his “Slumdog” collaborator Simon Beaufoy, Boyle’s new work is the story of Aron Ralston, a young Colorado adventurer and freethinker whose 2003 weekend excursion in the beautiful and imposing mountain canyons of Moah, Utah is disrupted by a frightening accident. 
Boyle is greatly aided by his charismatic and gifted star James Franco (who this season alone can be seen in two vastly different films, “Eat Pray Love” and “Howl,” as the poet Allen Ginsberg), whose alternately concentrated, intense, harrowing and even explosively funny performance anchors the work emotionally.
The movie has certainly thematic echoes of Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” both telling stories of privileged though also deeply selfish young men drawn into extreme stories of solitude and danger. Structurally, they both fracture time and space, interiorizing the thoughts and memories of the protagonists to examine the ramifications of their actions. Stylistically, the films could not be more different. Penn’s is measured and ruminative. Boyle’s is manic, immersive and devilishly alive. (It has one of the most spectacular and delayed uses of the title credits ever seen.)
Boyle also has two other key collaborators from his previous work, the composer A.R. Rahman and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. (His work is buttressed by the contributions of a second cinematographer, Enrique Chediak.) The digital photography allows for a razor-sharp clarity to the landscapes and dazzling physical architecture of the ridges and rock formations.
Franco’s Ralston is a classic movie character, a bit of a ruffian, good-looking, loose and free, but also smart and intuitive (he’s an engineer). A hiker, backpacker and mountain climber, he drives his car to the edge and takes off deeper and deeper, on his mountain bike, into the interior of the Blue Mountains. He’s an inveterate thrill seeker, but also a purist. He likes to carve out his own unmarked paths, like a breathtaking early scene when he confronts two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and convinces them to follow him as they wedge their bodies into a tight climbing path that yields an exhilarating moment where the three free fall through the impossibly tight spaces before plunging into a water pocket.
Ralston’s free spirited, even recklessness, and need for exultation and challenging human possibility takes a harrowing turn when he is trapped following a climbing accident. On his own, he falls into a narrow crevasse and his right arm pinned by a boulder. Suddenly, his tale of adventure and wonder turns into a harrowing story of survival and self-sacrifice. 
As his physical resources, food and water dwindle, his chances of being found nonexistent, Ralston must summon the will and resourcefulness to find his own solution. If the opening third is one of unlimited possibility and the extraordinary splendor and sensual pleasures of the open spaces, the balance of the movie turns intensely claustrophobic. 
Like other stories of confinement, the movie is as much a story of memory and freedom. As he struggles to find a way to free his body, he must fight off his own mind’s disassociation and anxiety. As the title explicit evokes, the movie is about duration and time. Like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” the movie is really about the breakdown of the body as he imagines himself drifting into death. 
Fortunately, luckily, some of the his personal possessions, a digital camera and movie camera, allow for a wholly different form of memory and replay. He fights off the hallucinations and the dreams by moving deeper into his own consciousness. 
He rummages his own memory in order to stay sane and lucid  and a flood of different associations and memories flow, like the first time his father took him to the mountains, some funny and playful exchanges with his sister. His stress and deepening desperation intensify his own sexual sensations, and summons his regret at his foolishness, naiveté and selfishness at the way he treated his girlfriend (Clémence Poésy).
These passages not only open the dramatic possibilities, but they deepen the characterization. Thanks to Boyle, the movie has a strange kind of buoyancy. It is lithe and thrilling, with some surprisingly deft and funny stretches, like the way a cartoon theme song fills his head and jump starts his increasingly fevered imagination.
Franco’s internalizes the character’s range of emotional experiences, but it is to his credit and the movie he never wallows in self-pity. He retains his warrior ethic, realizing he is responsible for the situation he has found himself in. As such, it remains up to him to find a way out.
If anything the movie is almost too much. Boyle is smart enough to calibrate what is going on, but even so, at times, the movie is too self-punishing and every once in a while, the stylization moves a little too uncomfortably from the immersive and fully engaged to the manic and pummeling.  Like most of Boyle’s work, it leaves a mark. The giddy and the horrifying coexist.