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With Oscar season in full swing, it’s the time of year in which you lucky cinema-goers get to choose between several feel-good tales of individuals overcoming adversity. The best of the bunch is neither a historical whitewash about a monarch striving to overcome a crippling speech impediment nor the story of a Bostonian pugilist trying to succeed despite the evil women in his life holding him back. Nope, these pictures pale in comparison to James Franco dealing with being stuck down a hole for five days.
127 Hours retells the story of Aron Ralston, a young thrill-seeker who, in 2003, was trapped under a boulder down a canyon in Utah and (not a spoiler) amputated his arm with a blunt pocketknife to free himself. Other than brief bookends and hallucinatory flashbacks, Franco is pretty much the only character in this film. He spends his days trying to concoct MacGyverish escape plans with the contents of his pack, watching the sun cross the floor of his geological prison and recording his thoughts on a camcorder. Franco’s tremendous performance completely holds the audience’s attention throughout the film and, although we never feel the boredom that Ralston undoubtedly did, when the time comes for him to do the unthinkable we are emotionally prepared for the inevitable gore.
One of the problems I have had with many of Danny Boyle’s past films is their tendency to overdo the schmaltz. This film could have gone down the same path had he relied on the flashbacks too much but they are thankfully used sparingly. Like any of us, Ralston has regrets but these are not lingered on and the narrative contexts of his hallucinations are not as important as the emotions they arouse. The focus is always on the present and when Ralston frees himself the result is infinitely life affirming, the film gaining a universality that would be difficult had Boyle overemphasised the specifics. The result is not the best film of Oscar season but it is the textbook example of a feel-good film done properly.