James Franco's hooked on crack

127 Hours isn't as gory as you think

The ending of 127 Hours has already been blown, but I won't spoil it here. In the fact-based docudrama, James Franco plays weekend mountaineer Aron Ralston, a Phish-listening, Mountain Dew ad kind of dude whose arm becomes inextricably pinned by a boulder during a trek into a remote Utah canyon. Based on Ralston's memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 127 Hours takes its title from the length of time Aron spent trying to free himself and contemplating, shall we say, the traditional escape route of coyotes with paws caught in traps.

The film's plot evokes the island scenes of Tom Hanks' Cast Away, partly by showing an ordinary guy improvising the tools of survival based on the common objects he happens to have with him. Aron comes up with futile but ingenious means of shifting the boulder. And where Hanks chatted with a volleyball, Aron uses his video camera as confidant and confessor as he increasingly frets over the scarcity of food, water or chance of rescue.

127 Hours proves to be a counterintuitive creative choice for director Danny Boyle, whose most famous films, including Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, put his headlong, high-speed stylishness up front. Here, Boyle relishes the creative challenges brought by the immobilized protagonist, but ensures that the film never becomes visually dull. When the narrative shifts into flashbacks and dreams that illustrate Aron's life outside the cave, the tangents tend to be brief and elliptical. It's as if Aron has only engaged with people on a superficial level for his entire life, and must learn his lesson the hard way.

Franco's multidisciplinary creative ambitions belie his laid-back screen presence. He seizes on 127 Hours as the next best thing to a one-man show. Where a method-based movie star such as Edward Norton relies on the technical aspects of acting, like accents, mannerisms and immersion in character, Franco seems more focused on finding the variations and complexities in his easygoing screen persona. Rather than transform himself, Franco seeks new, understated means to tap his considerable charisma. In 127 Hours, only his faux talk show scene rings false.

Reports of fainting, freaked-out audiences have surrounded 127 Hours. But the film's grisliest sequence doesn't dwell on gore, and instead offers the briefest glimpses of Aron's desperate decision. By comparison, it's not nearly as horrific as such mutilation-themed films as Antichrist or Audition.

127 Hours concludes on a note of genuine emotional release, but overall, the narrative engages with few ideas or themes beyond the nuts and bolts of survival. Perhaps the source material would have been better suited for one of those inventive survival documentaries such as the intense Touching the Void. Nevertheless, 127 Hours presents a fascinating, almost voyeuristic account of an ordinary person going to extremes.