Watching parts of “127 Hours” is agony, sheer agony – and viscerally compelling.
After his resounding success with “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle tackles the true survival story of mountain climber Aron Ralston’s courage after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm, trapping him in isolated Bluejohn Canyon, just outside Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.
Opening with a prologue about two fun-loving hikers, Kristi and Megan (Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn), actor James Franco (“Eat Pray Love”) – in a tour-de-force performance – establishes Ralston’s character as an engineering student from Aspen, Colorado, an adrenaline junkie who’s passionate about extreme sports. Then an accident on Saturday, April 26, 2003, presents a life-challenging dilemma. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, he’s planning to spend the day riding his mountain bike and climbing the red rocks and sandstone. Ralston rides 15 miles, then locks his bike to a juniper tree and takes off, carrying a backpack containing two burritos, less than a liter of water, an imitation Leatherman multi-tool, two cameras, rock-climbing gear and small First Aid kit. As he’s testing his weight on a huge rock, it gives way and crushes him in a crevasse.
Over the next five days, resourceful Ralston goes through all five psychological stages of grief, surreally recalling pivotal moments in his life, often involving his family or with an ex-girl friend (Clemence Poesy). The final stage of grief is acceptance, resulting in Ralston’s grisly, gruesome decision to amputate his right forearm below the elbow.
Written by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (collaborators on “Slumdog Millionaire”), it’s based on Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and it’s feverishly photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, continually changing camera angles to avoid confining claustrophobia, and aided by A.H. Rahman’s stylized synthpop score. Since Ralston brought a camcorder along that day, some of the footage is presented as if he were documenting what happened himself.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “127 Hours” is an intense, nerve-wracking, terrifying 9, building to an emotional climax.