The Oscars “Best Picture” candidates: 127 Hours

Talking about recent Danny Boyle films, the words “harrowing” and “life-affirming” often come up.  And in many ways, these adjectives befit his tellings of a mountaineer’s sticky situation as much as his unrequited love epic, straight from the slums of Mumbai.  Unlike last year’s Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar equivalent of a hooked worm (most grandfathers agree this is the best bait on the market), 127 Hours has all Slumdog’s heart without the cloying kitsch that was maudlin even by Bollywood standards.

Instead, this James Franco vehicle delivers a powerful allegorical punch, telling the true-life tale of human will-power, community and rock-and-a-hard-place situations.  Based on mountaineer Aron Ralston’s 2004 autobiography, 127 Hours is as hard to forget as it is, at times, hard to watch.

The film follows Aron Ralston (Franco), an adventurer in his twenties who prefers the company of canyons and caverns to his family and friends.  Embarking on a desert trek, Ralston guides a pair of cute climbing noobs (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) through the rocky landscape.  Like most of his relationships, this one is superficial and soon abandoned for his own adventures.  As most of us know by now, Ralston’s journey turns into a terrible misadventure when he becomes trapped within a feet-wide ravine, unable to escape with his arm anchored beneath a rock.  The rest of the film is Aron’s miraculous escape from the abyss, testing both the limits of survival instincts and the audience’s tolerance for gore.

Franco, mop-topped and decked out in style-less hiking gear, still captures the screen like a star, adding serious acting chops to his resume. To be able to captivate and shock in single-handed screen occupation for upwards of an hour and a half is a feat beyond the power of many modern actors, and one Franco manages with surprising credibility.  With the majority of the movie depicting a lone man in a cave, dialogue is minimal, yet Franco manages to convey Ralston’s emotional journey from hopelessness to madness to ultimate resoluteness.  The unofficial tagline of this buzzed-about movie has become Franco’s expertly delivered single syllable, “oops,” an unexpectedly pithy revelation of dejection, regret and a call back to human company.

However economic 127 Hours is with its words, it staggers a bit with cinematographic showiness.  Perhaps to balance the necessary verbal starkness and sobriety of Ralston’s situation, the film too often concedes to bright pops of unnecessary color and somewhat cloying flashbacks, flash-forwards and hallucinatory imagery.  Nonetheless, the film is beautifully photographed, making ample use of sweeping pans of the breathtaking landscape as well as intimate close-ups of Franco’s face, which ain’t too shabby a view either.

Viewers, of course, knew that Ralston would live to tell his tale, in memoir and James-Franco-film forms, but still, 127 Hours puts its audience in as suspenseful a position as Ralston’s pre-fall precarious perch.  Even spoilers can’t ruin this remarkable tale of triumph, redemption and will-power, a call to life for those who had spent too long under a rock.