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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2011

Celebration of life: '127 Hours' shows us what we are capable of doing

127 Hours is the true story of a man so desperate to live, he did what most us consider unthinkable: he severed his arm.

It's the true tale of an engineer and outdoor enthusiast and his immeasurable courage and intelligence, of unbroken strength and indomitable will.

In May, 2003, Aron Ralston hiked alone into an isolated ravine in a remote part of Utah, where a boulder crashed down on his arm, pinning him to the canyon wall. There he was trapped for 127 hours with a limited amount of food and water and no one around to help. In fact, no one knew he was there.

Exhausted and out of options to escape his gruesome fate, Ralston was forced to amputate his right arm with a dull knife blade. He struggled out of the canyon and into the desert, where he found help from a family of hikers and was saved. He has since gone on to become a motivational speaker and continues to mountain climb.

Ralston's story, given its horrific nature and heroic ending, was a natural media sensation. After the initial curiosity of what happened to him in that canyon, many of us who watched and read about Ralston's ordeal, no doubt placed ourselves in his situation and wondered if we could have maintained our sanity and mustered the bravery to do what he did to survive.

127 Hours shows that many of us -- most of us -- would have met a far more grisly fate.

127 Hours was cowritten by director Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, and is based on Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place." The film stars James Franco, who delivers one of the finest performances of the year. It's cruel awards fate that Franco has been mostly forgotten in this year's Oscar race for Best Actor, a statue all-but assured to be awarded to Colin Firth for The King's Speech.

Not to disparage Firth and his amazing turn as the stuttering and emotionally vulnerable King VI, but he had several actors to play against. His banter with Geoffrey Rush as the king's unorthodox speech therapist is an onscreen master's class in acting.

But Franco has almost no one to engage with or respond to, save two women he encounters on a deserted path before his troubles begin. Instead he's shouldered with the difficult task as the film's solo caretaker, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, only without the gorgeous tropical scenery as a backdrop.

Franco came of age in the acting world on the small screen with TV's much-beloved and rarely watched Freaks and Geeks, and quickly found roles in movies with the promise of being the next James Dean, a moniker bestowed on more than one young, attractive actor.

127 Hours is the realization of that promise. For all his recent buddy-stoner comedies, Franco, as Ralston, has taken a large step into the small class of this generation's best actors. His work onscreen is half the reason for the film's soaring success.

Not to be overlooked is Boyle, who won an Oscar for directing the 2009 Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire (sadly, he wasn't nominated this year) and here delivers a film every bit from the heart as that warm tale of a young man facing desperate odds for love. Boyle again showcases his skill as a director with 127 Hours, which presented more than one unique challenge in making the leap to movie theaters.

For one, how to stage a film in a tight canyon that feels neither claustrophobic nor stagnant? Boyle often puts us in uncomfortably close range with Ralston's predicament -- inches from the desperate mountain climber's face in his moments of fear, and through a video camera lens as he records a diary for his family and whoever might find his corpse.

But Boyle is clever enough not to leave audiences jailed in such tight quarters. Instead, he ingeniously removes us from the tiny canyon prison and into Ralston's head: dreams, memories, and even visions. Staring at his morbid death for more than five days gave Ralston ample time for deep moral contemplation and soulful regrets. As Ralston touches on these moments, he matures and changes, and flowers into the man he should have been all along. It's a quick character arc, but an important one that makes his second chance at life all the more poignant and personal.

There will be those drawn to the film to experience its edge-of-your-seat dramatization of Ralston's experience. While others will shy away from 127 Hours, believing themselves too squeamish to watch the much-discussed amputation, a scene that isn't as graphic or bloody as most presume it to be.

Either way, know that this is a hell of a movie; a film not easily shaken that will send you out of theaters in a joyous mood and perhaps with a tear or two. Despite its time spent in a dark, desperate place, 127 Hours, after all, is really just a giddy celebration of a life well-earned.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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