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James Franco's outdoorsman faces the worst in 127 Hours
Arm race
Franco summons every actorly skill he possesses.
Franco summons every actorly skill he possesses.

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is calm, cool and tear-your-hair-out exciting. Working from a script cowritten with his Slumdog Millionaire collaborator Simon Beaufoy, Boyle adapts Aron Ralston's "trapped in the wilderness" memoir with hellishly gripping aplomb.

In case you've been stuck in a crevasse, Ralston is the youthful outdoorsman who, while hiking Moab, Utah's Bluejohn Canyon in 2003, found himself trapped when a boulder collapsed and lodged his arm between a literal rock and a hard place. Foolishly, Ralston had left home that morning without informing anyone of his intended whereabouts. As Ralston (James Franco) repeatedly says, "Oops."

127 Hours is an archetypal tale of man vs. nature vs. himself. Ralston, after a pleasant morning of mountain-biking and cavorting in underground swimming holes with a pair of newbie female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), lands in an impossible, horrific situation: His arm can't be freed by any conventional means, he's low on water, and absolutely no one is aware of his plight. His only tools are a cheap Leatherman knockoff knife, a length of rope, some climbing tackle, a video camera (which is deployed to excellent, even endearing effect) and his wits.

If and how he extricates himself isn't much of a secret by now. Suffice it to say that when you're stocking up on sharp survival tools, buy American.

127 Hours is an unrelenting tour de force, but it's also, thanks to Beaufoy's clever script and Boyle's inspired direction, an unforgettable examination of the human spirit under extreme duress. Franco is simply amazing, summoning every actorly skill he possesses and rendering the real-life Ralston in raw and highly emotional terms that even the most jaded filmgoer can find sympathetic.

You'd think the story of one man's precarious ordeal might grow old, but this is Danny Boyle we're talking about, the man who first turned flat-sharing into a viscerally hilarious nightmare in his 1994 debut feature, Shallow Grave. Boyle makes canny use of delirium-infused flashbacks and hallucinatory cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak), often including split screen and montage, to relate Ralston's backstory and allow us into his increasingly panicky mindset. That alone is an accomplishment.

The fact that Franco gives the performance of his career (thus far, and I'm obviously discounting his stony-cool turn in Judd Apatow's brilliant and beloved Freaks and Geeks) is the icing on the cake. Fair warning, oh squeamish ones: 127 Hours does not shy away from Ralston's ultimate method of obtaining egress from his predicament. Which is exactly as it should be.

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