*127 Hours (R)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three
For a movie about a brush with death, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours bursts with life. Its first 20 minutes are a rush of joie de vivre, with pulsing, jubilant Slumdog Millionaire-esque music accompanying images of a Red Bull'd young man named Aron as he gets ready to spend the weekend in a Utah canyon. The writer/director splits the screen and flicks through scenes of the stuff the guy packs, the phone call he ignores, the string of taillights he sees as he hits late gridlock leaving the city. Once he gets to a camping ground, he says to his videocamera: "Just me, the music, and the night. Love it."
The next day Aron is just as pumped, racing on his bike across orange earth and blue skies, laughing even when he takes a nasty fall. He's clearly savoring being alone but is just as pleased when he runs into two lovely hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara). Together they squeeze through unsanctioned trails, swim in an underground oasis and flirt like crazy. Their impromptu date ends with the girls inviting Aron to a party and then leaving him by his lonesome. He returns to exploring the canyon, angling his body confidently through tight, nature-built hallways until a boulder falls on his right arm, trapping him.
Only now does the title pop up, for only now does the film truly begin.
Most everyone knows that 127 Hours is the true story of Aron Ralston, the adventurer who freed himself from that rock after the titular amount of time by amputating his arm. So the story isn't about what, but how: not only how Aron, buzzily played by James Franco, survived, but how Boyle and his star could make an intense but stagnant situation riveting for 94 minutes.
A terrific performance, naturally, was crucial, and Franco earns all the accolades he's already been receiving, taking us with startling vérité through the stages of Aron's response to his seemingly fatal accident. There's obstinate anger, panic and grief. For much of the time, however, Aron stays as level-headed as anyone could in that situation, videotaping himself as he strategizes, leaves messages for his family, or just talks to the camera for something to do. When he realizes his dull utility knife isn't going to help pare down that boulder, he devises a tourniquet and Franco gives the camera a mischievous look as the idea of amputation dawns.
Boyle, meanwhile, breaks up the potential monotony by interjecting flashbacks, the most gut-wrenching of which isn't necessarily of his family, but of his stubborn refusal to tell anyone about where he was going. And then there's that bubble of life again: As Aron grows delirious, he imagines himself at those girls' party and, more crucial, sees a vision of the son he doesn't yet have. It's enough to finally make him cut through that arm, a scene which is, of course, squirm-inducing, but not nearly as graphic as most horror movies.
Most critical to getting through the ordeal, though, both for Aron and the audience, is the sense of triumph that accompanies it. Galloping music (courtesy of A.R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his work in Slumdog) precedes a moment of quiet when Aron is finally free; then there's the harsh but welcome sunlight and a quickening soundtrack again. It's joyful and cathartic, and a cinematic experience you won't soon forget.