James Franco always struck me as an actor who gravitates towards serio-comedic roles that play up his charm, likability and ridiculous handsomeness without failing to put him across as a fast-rising star who gives convincing, appealing performances. In Milk, he came close to an Oscar nomination for his part as Sean Penn’s thoughtful lover, and most recently he snuggled up to Julia Roberts as her sensitive rebound flame in Eat Pray Love.
For his latest role, though, in Danny Boyle’s riveting 127 Hours, Franco channels his inner wild thrill-seeker to play 27-year-old hiker/mountain-climber Aron Ralston, a carefree (reckless, too) adventure junkie who nearly loses his life after being trapped in the most unimaginable of circumstances. Based on real life events chronicled in Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 Hours is Boyle’s gripping, intense follow-up to his Oscar-winning triumph Slumdog Millionaire that serves as welcome reminder of the director’s stunning visual style and gift for thought-provoking meditation on the human experience.
Boyle and Slumdog writer Simon Beaufroy provide the screenplay, with an upbeat, powerful soundtrack from A.R. Rahman, another Slumdog collaborator. The cinematography, largely capturing sun-baked mountainous landscape, is simply spectacular. But the movie’s true appeal and thrill lay in Franco’s tour-de-force portrayal. (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara make appearances as a pair of sweet-faced hikers that Ralston meets.)
In April 2003, Colorado native Ralston heads out to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park for his usual pleasurable indulgence and solitary escape into a past-time of fun geological exploration among a series of tiny passageways and cliffs that, with one wrong step or turn, can easily imperil your life. Ralston becomes living confirmation of this danger when he falls into a crack and a gigantic boulder pins one of his arms against the massive stone structure. Trapped without a soul to come to his recue, Ralston’s cries for help are fruitless. His camcorder and a raven that circles the sky above his canyon prison are just about his only company.
Shock quickly gives way to stages of despair, regret, self amusement, introspection and anger. The raw and palpable anguish is probably the only constant that characterizes Ralston’s time in the canyon, as the hours grow into days, and he runs out of food and water. It’s a humbling, five-day experience that teaches patience to a self-involved loner who regularly screened his mother’s calls and constantly disappointed his girlfriend. So when Ralston suggests that “This rock has been waiting for me my whole life,” you are tempted to agree, though you begin to feel sorry for the poor thing when he begins to resemble a zombie.
As the film heads to its shocking peak, a highlight that’s sometimes to gruesome to watch, you are reminded of Boyle’s skill at building up psychological suspense that keeps the audience riveted. The real Aron Ralston is hardly the sort of character you care about but, as superbly portrayed by Franco, he becomes someone you root for. And, more or less, that’s essentially what makes the film connect so effectively. So, if 127 Hours isn’t completely transporting, it’s an utterly spellbinding tale of survival and the strength of the human spirit.