“This rock has been waiting for me my entire life”
If there is anyone working in or out of Hollywood that I would give a fighting chance at making a cinematic adaptation of the perilous, claustrophobic entrapment of hiking enthusiast Aron Ralston, it’s Danny Boyle. His track record is impeccable, his artistic vision constantly evolving and morphing to fit the genre or subject he’s depicting, and his co-collaborators, be they writers or actors, are never lacking in the same dedicated fervor as he. So, walking into the sold out crowd at the—what was called World Premiere although it played Telluride the week before—Toronto International Film Festival screening of 127 Hours, where even David Cross partook as a film fan himself, I was ready to be enthralled by 90-minutes of James Franco isolated in a cavern with only his camcorder and Boyle’s direction to play off. For someone who has been branching more into the comedic side of his persona lately, this performance will prove how good he truly is. Even the real Ralston was at a loss for words concerning his harrowing journey onscreen for the world to see once the credits stopped, his wife and sister in the audience to share in the experience.
Once Boyle decided that he was interested in bringing Ralston’s story to life, he approached the man and found Aron was more interested in getting a documentary made. After a relentless pursuit, however, he finally gave in to let the auteur create a fictional narrative around the autobiography and videotapes originally filmed as a goodbye to his family when the situation in the canyon looked as grim as could be. Everyone involved, and myself as well, didn’t think it could have turned out any better than the suspenseful drama shown—a portrait of a man living life at full speed, sometimes forgetting to pause in order to catch his surroundings and the people he loves, whose near fatal stroke of fate opened his eyes to what really mattered. Right from the start, with Boyle’s triptych, constantly changing frames of motion set to a techno beat expressing the adrenaline rush of someone about to conquer Mother Nature, we catch a glimpse for Ralston’s zeal of adventure and his good-natured persona soon to prove crucial in his survival.
Knowing what would be occurring about an hour later, you could say his failed reach for a Swiss army knife at the back of a kitchen cabinet is brilliant foreshadowing, but the fun soon to come pushes it from your mind. Here is a guy riding a mountain bike way too fast on way too unpredictable terrain, a point-of-view camera catching his wicked flip overboard when slipping off a rock. His first reaction—busting out the digital camera to document the misstep, a wide grin showing how a little pain isn’t enough to end his day early. Following this, his usual path devoid of other human beings crosses with two cute college-aged girls out on their own adventure, lost from the trail they anticipated taking. In comes Aron to the rescue, tossing a little white lie about working as a guide to set them back on the correct route, with a detoured shortcut he knows they will love. As any trio of attractive, warm-blooded youths will do, (this is Franco, Amber Tamblyn, and Kate Mara after all), they put aside any fears the lone hiker might kill them—his not so subtle jabs at humor on the subject helping the cause—and follow him to a spot that opens into a freefall with a hidden body of water beneath.
Aron is on a total adrenaline high when he leaves them to go deeper into the canyons, the two girls heading to their car after inviting him to a party the next night. Pumped and ready to continue on, he hops through tight spaces, constantly testing the strength of rocks before jumping on them, and in a stroke of bad luck falls as a boulder plummets with him, wedging his arm between it and the cavern wall as it stops. There is no time for a scream of agony or fear in seeing only a thumb where his hand hides behind the massive stone; all that comes to him is panic and a quick survey of the situation to hopefully work through it. Emptying his backpack, we see a length of rope, the 300ml of water left in a bottle to go with a few sips still present in a Camelbak, the very sparse portions of food, and a pocket tool pliers with the dullest of blades, maybe strong enough to chip at the rock to free his arm. It is the beginnings of a 127-hour test of physical, mental, and emotional duress with 15 minutes a day of direct sunlight, an ominous raven flying above, and only his own voice, a video camera, and memories of family to keep him company.
An audience member asked after the screening about whether Ralston ever prayed to his God or attempted to make a deal for escape since none is shown on film. He answered with a laugh that he tried making a pact with every God he could think of, even going to the devil as a last ditch effort to no avail. What is shown instead are a series of video journal entries to his sister (Lizzy Caplan), his mom (Kate Burton), and his dad (Treat Williams), asking forgiveness for never showing them enough love and for making them worry due to his leaving on the hike without returning his mother’s call to say where he’d be. He begins to philosophize about how his entire life led him to this point—each second and each journey putting him one step closer to the rock that would forever change his life. Dreams of monsoon rains flowing to give him water and weightlessness to remove the boulder for an escape to safety come and go, reminiscing about an old girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) and how he let her get away, and a wish to be at his sister’s wedding all flow through his subconscious, Boyle putting everything onscreen with a distorted edge of fantasy.
But while the director and screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, distilled the emotional core of the event, humanizing this man since the story is really about a human experience and not a nature versus man clash, they also added some humor to temper the dire reality occurring. Possibly my favorite part of the entire film is a video entry told as though Aron is a talk show host interviewing himself, putting Franco in a sympathetic and endearing light, still able to have moments of levity no matter how quickly the sparkle in his eye turns to the devastating realization of not having much life left. Time begins to speed by, the camera shots inside the Camelbak’s straw shows the yellow of urine rising to his mouth where water once resided, and hallucinatory imagery of the future rapidly starts to flash across the frame. The tension rises as we know the moment nears for a decision all people have the capacity to make a reality. His release is a grueling affair with Operation-style sharp buzzers and close-ups of excruciating pain wrought on Franco’s face as the knife digs deeper, but it’s also a moment of choosing life and love over defeat. Expect to see 127 Hours on stage in February for its fair share of much deserved Oscar glory.
 James Franco in 127 HOURS Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick
 L-R: James Franco, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn in 127 HOURS Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick
 James Franco stars as Aron Ralston and Clemence Poesy stars as Rana in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ 127 Hours (2010)