Would you cut your arm off to stay alive? It is a concept that's beyond the realms of comprehension for most of us whose day-to-day worries never extend to more then whether we are going to have a chinese or an indian for dinner.
This simple premise is one that self-centred climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) had to contemplate in 2003 after becoming trapped inside a deserted canyon in Utah when a falling boulder crushes his right arm against a rock face. As the hours tick by, and his rations run out it looks increasingly likely that unless he takes drastic measures Ralston is to become a permanent fixture of Blue John Canyon.
Described by Boyle as an "action movie with a guy who can't move", 127 Hours is a cinematic lesson in how to make the impossible film. Boyle has challenged himself to create a film where everyone without exception knows what is going to happen (come on, have you been living under a rock?), there is practically only one character and the set-up lacks the normal story-telling tools like character interaction, plot-twists and dialogue trade-offs.
The fact that the film is a triumph is mainly down to the fact that Boyle cannot physically make a bad film. Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire; they have all shown he can tackle any practically any subject with style and panache.
Boyle really manages to convey the claustrophobia of Ralston's rock encased tomb. As the canyon is his whole world for 127 hours tiny movements in such a cramped space are given much significance. We get close-ups of giant ants running over his body or Ralston sucking the last drops of water from his canteen shot from the bottom of the bottle, Ralston tongue squirming about in a desperate attempt to get to the water. Boyle manages to make a scene where Ralston has to retrieve his knife from the canyon floor with his toes and a twig feel like he has just completed a marathon.
127 Hours is stylishly executed from the split screen start, through a delerium-induced fantasy sequences right through to the final euphoric AR Rahman backed musical denouement.
Directorial pyrotecnics not withstanding this movie would not be half as captivating without James Franco's mesmerising potrayal that many didn't see coming. He is usually employed as on screen eye candy or is found hamming it up in films like Spiderman 3. Whether it be playing up the of Ralston's over-confident nature or the extreme desperation of a man sceaming for help who realises that he won't be missed and no help will reach him.
Despite the character flaws Franco makes Ralston look sympathetic enough to root for whilst he tries every trick in the book to make it out alive.
Of course the money scene is the arm amputation. Everybody knows it is coming but that does not deaden its impact. I don't rememeber the last time I was so unsettled when going to the cinema (it was probably the Blair Witch Project with the advance hype proclaiming to be the scariest film ever made - it wasn't). I guarantee you will either have to turn away or as I did watch the scene through your fingers.
It actually took Ralston a hour to cut off his arm with his blunt penknife and you get it all in bone-breaking, tendon-snapping, blood 'n guts gory detail. It is gruesome, visceral and shocking.
The film reminded me a lot of Into The Wild with both central characters at odds with the modern world. Both turn their backs on civilisation and long for the simple peace that nature brings. However, when the chips are down only one of them is fortunate enough to realise that you cannot live your life without the support of other human beings. Ultimately this is Ralston's salvation.
A fine film that is generating a well deserved Oscar buzz for Franco. If anything it will give you new insight into what a desperate man is capable of.