Nov. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Danny Boyle's '127 Hours' unforgettably intense

If you’re going to see “127 Hours,” here’s some good advice: Take a hand towel along.

You might need it to mop away the sweat — and possibly the tears — triggered by director Danny Boyle’s electrifying, nerve-wracking portrayal of the perils of Aron Ralston (James Franco), the adventurer who set out to explore Utah’s Blue John Canyon in 2003 and wound up trapped in a slender crevice, his arm crushed beneath a large chunk of chalkstone.

“There must be some chemical that makes us different from animals” is the first line of the song that opens the film. It's a sentiment Boyle goes on to refute: To save his life, Ralston had to act like the wolf that chews off its own paw to escape a hunter’s trap.

“127 Hours” doesn’t back down from detailing exactly how Aron did what he had to do, but the movie is anything but grim and grisly. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film is how much levity, visual excitement and sheer imagination Boyle incorporates into the agonizing situation.

As in “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting,” Boyle proves himself a master of modulation. Every time “127 Hours” becomes almost unendurably intense, the film surprises us with a sudden laugh or a breathtaking bit of cinematic stuntwork; although Aron may be pinned down, codirectors of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak move about as easily as the canyon winds, swooping over the sun-baked landscape,
soaring into the skies and then rushing back to zoom in on Aron in his
most excruciating moments. Boyle has always known how to utilize music
to put that extra punch in a scene, and he scores a knockout here with
his devastating use of Bill Withers’ bouncy “Lovely Day” in a key

But all the phenomenal filmmaking would never pay off without Franco’s outstanding, heart-wrenching performance. He’s consistently compelling in what is largely a one-man show that takes him to nearly every point on the emotional map. Fearful he may not ever get out alive, Aron uses his portable video camera to make a final statement to his family and friends, which turns into a surrealistic, scattershot talk show in which he is both interviewer and interviewee. It’s here that “127 Hours” really gets under your skin, as Boyle and Franco shift from Aron’s physical pain to his anxiety and self-recrimination, which Franco reveals magnificently.

“Don’t lose it,” Aron tells himself repeatedly, as his water supply runs low and his brain torments him by replaying every drink commercial he’s ever seen. Again, Boyle strikes a brilliant balance between the harrowing and the hilarious. Aron’s story is a remarkable testament to the human spirit, and “127 Hours” is an exhilarating example of a great director and a terrific actor at the peak of their powers.

'127 Hours'

Opens today at Celebration! Cinema Lansing and NCG Eastwood Cinemas

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