Aron Ralston (James Franco) quickly grabs some supplies and heads out to his favorite spot, the canyons near Moab, Utah. As soon as the sun rises, he jumps on a mountain bike and heads out to explore and enjoy the great outdoors, heading to a spot some twenty miles away. He crosses paths with two young women, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn) and agrees to show them the way to their destination. Once there, they swim and dive and have fun. After a few hours, they head on to complete their individual journeys. As Aron navigates a narrow crevasse, a small boulder comes loose, causing him to fall and wedging his arm between the wall and the boulder. He can't budge it and becomes worried at the sight of some streaks of blood. Aron takes stock and has very limited food, some water, stretchy cord, a camera, a video camera and a dull knife. Before leaving for the trip, he wasn't able to find his Swiss Army knife, so he is left with a dull give-away promotional knife. He tries to chip away at the sandstone, to move the rock, but doesn't make any progress. Over the next five days and twenty hours, Aron has to figure out how to use the limited supplies he has to survive until he can be rescued. Or, on the other hand, he has to figure out if and how he can get out of this situation on his own.
Boyle starts the film by masterfully depicting why Aron, and others like him, are so eager to escape the city, eager to mountain bike in the wilderness, eager to climb rock formations, eager to backpack. When he meets the two women, they even remark about how they don't feel like they figured into Aron's day. Aron is the type of guy who actively looks for adventure and makes decisions on the spur of the moment. This is why he agrees to spend time with the young women, setting his schedule back half a day.
As soon as Aron gets trapped, Boyle has to do something to give us more details into the adventurer's history. He has to make us care about this man and he can't really do that by keeping us only with Aron for the rest of the film. As Ralston tries to assess his situation, a memory surfaces and this gives Boyle the opportunity to show us a brief part of his past. The technique Boyle uses seems more suited for films made in the late '60s. And normally, this would drive me crazy. But in this situation, these moments work, primarily because they are pretty brief. They also move back and forth between more real and more imagined settings. For instance, Aron remembers a moment he and his dad shared during his childhood. They sit on an old couch in the family home, talking. Then his dad is gone and young Aron is still sitting on the couch, but the couch now sits in the crevasse Aron is trapped in, the sand and rock walls surrounding the furniture, visible to the side.
Boyle introduces us to Aron's father (Treat Williams) and mother (Kate Burton) and the love of his life, Rana (Clemence Poesy). These moments, though brief, helps to give us insight into Aron's character and life. Because they are so brief, it is surprising that we feel we know Aron and his family so well. We really get a feeling for him and come to care for him.
A lot of the credit for the success of this film lies with Franco. For much of the relatively short running time, Franco is the only person on screen and this would only serve to amplify any poorly acted moment, any false characterization, any thing that doesn't ring true. From the first moment he is on screen, we start to understand him. He is most happy when he is explaining what some stretch of wilderness is, the history of a cavern, earning some bit of solitude to compensate for any minute of time he is forced to spend cooped up in the city. In this element, he finds peace and revels in every moment.
When he meets Kristi and Megan, Franco's smile helps us recognize he simply wants to have a good time. Sex isn't a part of the equation, he wants to share some moments with like personalities. Later, when he is trapped and has a lot of time to think, he remembers back to some moments in his life. When we return to him, Franco's demeanor and facial expressions seem to be an honest portrayal of how the young man would react. And make us feel he is really remembering these moments.
When Aron finally realizes what he has to do, Franco shows us the horror of this realization and the pain of this decision.
THE moment is both necessary and extremely difficult to watch. It is necessary because it is a part of the story. But so many other filmmakers would shy away from a frank depiction of this moment. Boyle doesn't. Without it, the story would be nowhere near as impactful. Because of it, you might have nightmares. It would be gruesome enough, hard enough to watch if he had found his Swiss Army knife. But without it… I just shudder thinking about it again.
The film ends with a coda giving us an update on Aron Ralston's life. During the moments before this, I started to tear up because he was going to be okay, because he was going to make it, something I already knew given he wrote the book this film is based on, but I was still extremely moved. And the last few moments give us a glimpse of the real Ralston and all of the people affected by this incident. Because of everything Boyle and Franco are able to accomplish throughout the film, I was extremely moved by these brief images.
Best of all, Boyle ends the film, presents this coda, in a way stylistically in tune with the rest of the journey and all of those memory flashbacks/
"127 Hours" is a great piece of filmmaking. You need to see it. You can always close your eyes if that scene becomes too much for you.