Aron Ralston (james Franco) first appears in 127 Hours as a series of body pieces. His hand, his foot, his leg, a finger or two—each appears in close-up, somewhat blurred, as he prepares for an adventure. Filling his water bottle, lacing his shoes, or checking his phone messages, Aron is headed out, a direction, he reveals in voiceover, he perceives as a moral and philosophical imperative.
Aron’s trip to a Utah canyon is rendered in concise, quick-cut images: he drives, he shifts, he leaves traffic and city lights in pursuit of isolation and self-communion. The world he’s escaping is depicted in fragments, literal split screens of crowds on sidewalks or at worship, glimpses of the group activities Aron eschews. He’s fast and furious, focused and elemental, the film suggests by adopting his internal state as its style, all sharp angles and zip pans. Aron views the world as a variety of challenges, tests of nerve and skill where he sets rules and expects outcomes. He’s determined to be his own man, you know, because the camera has to move fast to keep up with him and because he doesn’t call his mother back.
This last will be key to Aron’s life over the next 127 hours. You know this because you know Danny Boyle’s movie is based on the real life experience of Ralston, who had to cut off his own arm when he was trapped in a canyon and no one knew where he was. If only his mother could have known—his location, his timetable, something—Aron’s situation would have been just a bit less desperate. But as it was, and as it is again for the film version, Aron pays for trying to hard to be alone, for being arrogant and for being unlucky.
The unlucky part comes after a bit of luck: he runs into a couple of adorable hikers Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), with whom he spends some time swimming in a cave. At once exotic and titillating, the interlude mostly provides a slightly other look at Aron than you’ve had so far: the girls take to him, they flirt sweetly, and they appreciate his daring. And then they’re gone.
The scene comes back much later in the film, after Aron’s been trapped for days and begins to look through his video footage, finding a moment when the girls have looked into his lens on their own, while he’s off swimming or climbing or otherwise self-involved. “Were worried about you,” they murmur, just before they offer to test his “theory, about whether it’s better to [jump in the water] without your clothes on.” As they strip for the camera, Aron is touched, not only by their nakedness, but also by their tenderness. For this brief moment, he’s connected. Or at least directly addressed.
By the time Aron sees this image on screen, of course, the girls are long gone and he’s trapped, his arm wedged between the canyon wall and a rock that landed on it while he was climbing. Until he’s discovered this footage of Megan and Kristi, he’s been talking to himself, recording himself, and also remembering himself in a range of situations, from family gatherings to nights out with his friends to a soft-lit post-coital exchange with an ex, perfect blond Rana (Clémence Poésy). As his past plays in his mind’s eye, Aron appears to come to some self-realizations, and these form the movie’s rudimentary moral course (leading to the requisite statement of regret: “Mom, I love you and I wish that I’d returned all your phone calls”). The walls of the canyon loom around him: he looks up to the sky, watches a hawk fly over, times it. And still, he can’t move.
Aron’s immobility means the movie must imagine him moving, not only backwards in time but also forwards, to a possible future, where he has a young son. During such moments 127 Hours evokes a bit of the filmmaker’s past too, as its immersion in Aron’s subjective experience is of a piece with most of Boyle’s movies, from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to Millions and Sunshine. At once intimate and surreal, Aron’s spins into his own head take him not out, as he has so devoutly desired, but deeply, irrevocably in. At times, this realm-crossing comes close to Trainspotting‘s brilliance: Aron imagines himself as a TV show host, interviewing himself close to death. He’s at once a commercial object, anticipating his own celebrity once he does emerge from his captivity, and also, less exactly, separating himself from himself, as he will do bodily once he starts cutting off his arm.
The two Arons sequence showcases smart editing and a beguiling set of performances by Franco. But it also goes directly to what’s at stake in Aron’s search, and to some extent, in making a movie about such a profoundly individual experience, one that cannot, in the end, be translated to film. All that 127 Hours can do is reimagine what went on, conjuring a fantastic, frequently entertaining ride, helping you to head out as you also head in.