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James Franco embodies Ralston in 127 Hours

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

One man. One gorge. No rules.

“127 Hours” is a classic tale of boy meets boulder, boulder pins boy, boy cuts his arm off with a dull pocketknife. If by now you haven’t heard the story of Aron Ralston (played in “Hours” by James Franco), you’ve probably been trapped under a rock for the past eight years. Basically, this young outdoor enthusiast sets off on a trip to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, wherein he suffers a nasty fall. Ralston’s tumble shakes loose a pretty hefty piece of rock that crushes his arm and traps him in a crack of the earth, where he is cut off from all human contact. Sensing imminent death in the canyon, Ralston struggles with the lack of food and water, his own demons and the personal mistakes that got him stuck in the first place. However, through his own perseverance and remarkably high threshold for pain, Ralston survives by severing his arm and walking to safety.

Yeah, that dude’s pretty hardcore.

I have to admit, I was initially drawn to the movie out of a sense of morbid curiosity more than anything else. “How can they anyone make a movie about one man trapped in the same place for five days?” I asked.

Well, to answer that question, start by casting James Franco. It’s an incredibly unique role to play: an isolated man, slowly losing his mind to dehydration and seclusion. More than most roles, Franco’s acting has to be based entirely on internal struggle; there are hardly any characters that he can react to. That’s what makes Franco’s performance so powerful. The whole movie rides on his facial expressions, his mad ramblings and his reaction to such a dejecting experience. Franco pulls it off with an air of quirkiness that makes the film at times humorous and at others eerie. The way he delivers dark jokes about drinking his own urine is both funny and sobering. And the visual is, as one might suspect, pretty gross.

Of course, the movie isn’t a comedy at all, though it has its moments (a certain famous cartoon dog makes an appearance). But at the same time, it can’t necessarily be described strictly as a drama. In fact, “127 Hours” has all the makings of an action film. It’s a thriller right down to the core, albeit limited in terms of space. There are many incredibly tense, pulse-pounding moments as Ralston tries to free himself. His various hallucinations give way to some pretty surreal, intense images. The film’s tension is drawn from some great directing by Danny Boyle. Known for his Academy Award winning work “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle uses that same gritty, disparate style to keep “Hours” enthralling throughout. In addition, his “Slumdog” composer-in-chief A.R. Rahman delivers another fantastic (and Academy Award nominated) score that beautifully compliments the anxiety of isolation and the harsh desert terrain.

In many ways, “Hours” and “Slumdog” deliver similar levels of emotion. But “Hours” succeeds in a rather unique feat: Using only one dynamic character and one primary setting, it manages to be engaging without becoming boring. In “Slumdog” and other like films, a pulsing score and harsh lighting work with a matched action, like running from thieves or crooked police. “Hours” has to deliver that same energy minus the stimuli of physical exertion, something it does effortlessly. Sure, there are flashbacks that color the action and give back-story to our lovable, idiotic, pseudo-hippy protagonist. These pieces, however, are among the weaker parts of the film. At times, I just wanted to check back in with my buddy in the gorge to see how he was doing. Was he still stuck? Oh, right.

It goes without saying that there’s a reasonable amount of gore in the film. I assure you, “Hours” earns its R rating all in that one pivotal scene (you know the one I’m talking about). However, the horrific images never seem pornographically violent. Quite the contrary, it’s the most artistic way I’ve ever seen somebody cut his or her own arm off.The music, the smash editing and the final indifference Franco demonstrates serve to make it much less about showing something disgusting and a lot more about giving the viewer a physical manifestation of the protagonist’s determination. I, for one, knew that if I found myself in Ralston’s situation, I would have died crying like a little girl.

No question about it.

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