By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Aron Ralston literally gave his right arm to get back home. You know his story if not his name, of being trapped for five days after a rock climbing accident and sawing off the limb to escape.
Naturally, Ralston wrote a book and naturally it is now a movie — just not the movie that you might expect.
Danny Boyle is a compulsive director of the unexpected, from Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire and artful tangents in-between. It shouldn't surprise anyone that he turned Ralston's solitary ordeal into 127 Hours, an avalanche of kinetic imagery that celebrates being around people, en masse or intimately, and the magnetic pull to society that even a weekend loner like Aron (James Franco) can't resist.
Through delirious flashbacks and hallucinations, Boyle fills our senses with what Aron may never experience again: a lover's touch, a swig of Gatorade, his sister playing piano, Mom's voice on an unanswered phone message. That never occurred to Aron when he took off alone for another adventure, neglecting to tell anyone where. He's cut from the same cloth as Christopher McCandless, the doomed hero of Into the Wild, but without grudges, only confidence taken too far.
Aron's nightmare becomes an actor's dream for Franco, whose coltish intensity meshes well with Boyle's approach. What actor wouldn't love being the only person on screen for much of a movie's running time? Yet there is never a sense of showboating in the performance, largely because of a brilliant conceit that happens to be true.
While trapped, the real Aron kept a video diary of his desperate circumstance with the hopes that it would be returned to his family someday. He didn't wish to appear alarmed for their sakes, so Franco tamps down the panic, leading to effectively introspective drama. But as dehydration and delirium set in, the recordings also inspire gallows humor; Aron poses as a talk show host, the guest and a caller — with a fantasy band and laugh track — in an achingly self-critical (and fictional) monologue.
Aron's evaporating sanity frees 127 Hours from his tomb, with Boyle fully using the rare luxury of having two directors of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak. Their cameras are in constant motion in split screens and swiveling zooms mimicking Aron's racing thoughts. A rapid God's-eye view of the narrow canyon illustrates Aron's isolation. A hallucinated escape to his ex-girlfriend's door that she silently slams in his face portrays a growing awareness of human contact he always left behind.
Some of the visual tricks wear out their ingenuity, like placing a minicamera inside Aron's water bottle and camelback straw to watch his dwindling supply slide into his mouth, and a second surreal cameo for Scooby-Doo. The musical score is a hodgepodge of songs linked solely by melodic locomotion. To convey escalating madness, Boyle regularly and friskily errs on the opposite side of caution.
But that daredevil spirit — no different from Aron's breakneck race to that canyon — gives 127 Hours a visceral punch even before the amputation scene. It's gory and gut-wrenching but strangely life-affirming; when facing death humans will go to the absolute last resort to survive. That's worth at least one thumb up, don't you think?
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.