TIFF Movie Review: 127 Hours (2010)

James Franco, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn in 127 Hours
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Whether you know the story or not won’t affect your experience whatsoever when it comes to Danny Boyle’s enthralling 127 Hours. It speaks directly to the core of the human experience. It’s entertaining, emotional, uplifting, exasperating and altogether breath-taking. Very few films can get me glassy-eyed and put a lump in my throat, but the final five minutes of 127 Hours are five of the greatest minutes I’ve seen all year and Boyle makes it look so easy.

Based on the true story, detailing seven days in the life of mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), 127 Hours begins on just another Friday in Aron’s life. Preparing for a trip to Blue John Canyon in Utah, Ralston fills his water bottle, packs his gear and makes his way out the door all to a thumping soundtrack filled with energy. It plays like a music video introduction that instantly recalls Boyle’s Oscar Best Picture-winner Slumdog Millionaire.

Once Ralston gets to his destination Boyle gets us acquainted with Ralston in a matter of minutes and all through the experience of watching him at play. We’re with him as he bikes through the Utah terrain. He crashes and stops to take a picture while he lay in a heap before he sets off again. Shortly thereafter he stumbles upon a pair of hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) and guides them to a hidden oasis before he’s off again. It’s at this point, nearly 20 minutes into the film, one false move finds Ralston’s arm stuck between a falling boulder and the canyon wall, several feet below the surface in a small isolated crack in the Earth.

Alone and unable to move, the next 70 minutes consider Ralston’s dilemma and Franco delivers a performance as perfectly measured as you could ask for. As time passes he recounts time spent with his family, remembering how he didn’t take his mother’s phone call before he left, thinking of his ex-girlfriend (Clemence Poesy) and recording personal messages on his camcorder believing these will be the final hours of his life.

It’s bleak, I won’t tell you it isn’t, but Franco doesn’t play it as a sad sack whiner. He may believe this may be the end, but he still chips away at the boulder, devises a makeshift pully system and by the end resorts to drastic measures in an attempt to pull free. It’s some of the most harrowing moments you’ll see on film and Boyle utilizes more than just Franco’s performance. With the help of cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, he explores every aspect of the senses that cinema can provide, from silence to spectacle.

This is undoubtedly Danny Boyle at his dramatic finest. 127 Hours has a certain amount of electricity to it and just as Slumdog Millionaire benefit from his musical choices with a score from A.R. Rahman, Boyle brings Rahman back and along with the oddly appropriate use of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” and a tune from the Icelandic group Sigor Rós playing over those final five minutes I mentioned earlier. It’s perfect filmmaking and it touches you not only out of happiness and sadness, but more out of an appreciation for life and not only yours.

It’s a weird feeling to stare glassy-eyed at the screen and feel an absolute sense of awe at what you’re watching. 127 Hours wore me out and at the end I wasn’t making any immediate move for the exit. It’s reassuring when you see great filmmakers making great films and staying clear from the ordinary. To think Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy were able to deliver such an emotional ride out of such a seemingly small story is movie magic at its best.