The opening credits of 127 Hours are a reckless, joyous montage of the race of daily life leading to the promise of an adventurous weekend. Split screens show people heading to and going home from work and in sections turn to reveal Aron Ralston (James Franco). He rushes around his apartment, gathering or neglecting equipment, and filling his water bottle. These quick, routine decisions are more important than he can possibly realize at the time.

He drives in the night to Robber’s Roost in Utah, home to a history of Old West stories of Butch Cassidy’s gang and scenic panoramas of rock formations and sagebrush — rousing sunrises and chilly nights. Camera in hand and music blaring on the radio, he records the bumpy ride to a campsite where he’ll sleep in the back of his jeep. “Just me and the night,” he cheers.

In the morning, he hits the trail. When the trail hits him after falling off his bike, he laughs it off, takes out his camera, and snaps a photo of his face — a smiling kind of pain. After scaling a hill to check out the view, he meets two lost girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). He’s a guide, he lies to them, but then again, when a place like this is your second home, as he tells them, maybe being official isn’t important. They shimmy, bent over with backs supporting their bodies on one side of the wall and hands and legs shuffling for small movements, across a chasm. He lets go and slides into the darkness. At the bottom is a pool of water. They repeatedly fall into it; he records the whole thing. He should meet them at a party the next night, they both say.

On his own again, he begins to hike down Blue John Canyon. Music blares from his headphones as he leaps across, uses his whole body to climb down, and traverses through the cracks and crevices. The camera follows his hand as it caresses the rock walls. He spots an opening further down with a boulder at the entrance.

He tests the rock with his foot — solid — and begins to climb down. The stone gives, and he falls, desperately grasping at the sides to slow himself down. He hits the bottom. The rock crushes his right hand and half of his forearm and pins them to the side. The camera pulls back to a medium shot — the wall, the rock, and his face — and the title finally arrives in silence. Here we are with Aron, drastically pulled out of the highs of his trip and into shock.

What follows is not a factual depiction of events as they really happened — and, it cannot be emphasized enough, this story really did happen — but how they happened to Aron Ralston, a resourceful, forward-thinking, rugged man who didn’t make a mistake in following his passion for adventure but failed to realize how potentially deadly isolation can be. Ralston wrote a book about the experience and gave it the only possible title it could have: Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

Director Danny Boyle’s film takes place in two worlds: the horrifyingly real, physical prison of Aron’s situation and the one in his head, where childhood memories of his sister playing the piano force him to realize he will miss her wedding, the fifteen minutes of sunlight he can experience each morning reminds him of a trip with his father to watch the sun rise over the desert, and the last memory of his mother is her voice on the answering machine leaving yet another message he won’t return. He shows little pain regarding his arm — either out of shock or the fact that without circulation there is no feeling — but that other, internal world of memory hurts. In one dream, he pictures miraculous escape, only to have a former love (Clémence Poésy) slam the door in his face.

Boyle documents Aron’s ingenuity in attempting to facilitate his own escape. Unpacking his pockets, he sets everything (and they really are the only things in the world, as far as he is concerned) on the impediment in front of him. With the dull knife from a cheap, multipurpose tool, he begins to chisel away at the rock. He spends 40 minutes tossing a rope up to a ledge above him to create a pulley to support his weight, and then he sleeps for five minutes.

Time moves slowly, he tells his camera, which he sets up on the rock to film a video diary. Indeed, it barely exists in the film, which switches between fantasy, reality, and memory with the graceful fluidity of Jon Harris’s editing. In one scene, they all come together as Aron imagines himself on a daytime talk show, alternately playing the role of the host, himself, and a caller with insight into how he ended up here in the first place. An imagined audience applauds and laughs on cue.

It’s a lesson that seems impossible to cull from a story of survival due to the individual strength, cunning, and will of one man, but through Aron’s delusions and reminiscences, Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is also the tale of the necessity of others. In them, Aron finds hope. A lovely scene, set to a haunting, angelic vocal solo, places the future in front of Aron and gives him another push.

Franco carries the film in indelible ways. The overwhelming physical, emotional, and psychological toll on Aron are inescapable and candid, especially in portraying the lengths to which he must go to live, including a grueling amputation sequence (bones crack like gunshots, and nerves screech in agony).

So many films assert inspiration, but here is one to truly inspire. The coda of 127 Hours, which takes the fantasy/reality motif to the next, logical step, fortifies the sensation of catharsis. Here is a man who looked death in face, said thank you, and meant it.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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