Other people besides James Franco appear in 127 Hours, but as they're unimportant, they will not be mentioned in this review. Danny Boyle's film — based on the story of Aron Ralston, who in 2003 cut off his own arm after being stuck for five days under a rock in a Utah canyon — is a one-man show. Watch what Franco — actor/sleepy grad student/tepid writer/sometimes-funny viral video comedian/unsurprising conceptual artist/enthusiastic scholar of queer theory/aficionado of gender fuckery — can accomplish when he actually focuses for a couple of weeks.
Once the boulder drops, about 20 minutes into the movie, and the title appears on the screen like a punchline, we're stuck in that canyon with Franco. We're as dependent on him for our moviegoing survival as Ralston is on his dwindling supply of water. At first, this means enduring long sequences of frantic failure, as he tries to lift the boulder, push the boulder, pull himself free, straining mightily the whole time. (If anyone ever greenlights Constipation: The Movie, Franco's got his audition tape ready.) So unbearable is his futility that when Ralston manages the small triumph of picking up a dropped knife with a twig, Franco's exultant "Sweet!" is both mordantly funny and legitimately inspiring.
That scene is emblematic of much of 127 Hours, which, for most of its middle section, is a portrait of American ingenuity, with Franco's likable, practical performance at its heart. He'll get to the arm-sawing, sure, but first, Ralston — once an engineer — devises, with the limited tools available to him, clever systems of survival and, he hopes, mechanisms of freedom. He wraps himself in ropes and a bandanna as the nighttime temperature drops into the 40s. He pees into his camelback, just in case. Soon, he's assembled a complicated pulley system with which he hopes to pull the boulder off himself. All the while, Ralston narrates his predicament into the video camera he's brought along, a filmmaking device that seems awfully blunt at first but becomes a fascinating window into how a smart, funny, non-action-hero guy might behave as he tries to think his way out of a catastrophe.
Soon enough, we're navigating through Ralston's head, and the descent into thirsty delirium begins. "Don't lose it," he commands himself, but he does, and his hallucinations and memories — including one jolting cameo from Scooby-Doo — are visceral and affecting. Unlike Boyle's last movie, the flashback-dependent Slumdog Millionaire, we're not meant to draw explicit lines from the past to the present — there's no scene of a young Aron Ralston, like, learning to tie a double overhand stopper knot. Instead, the glimpses of his past build an impressionistic picture of a young man so devoted to the pursuit of experience that he has left human connection behind. He built his life in solitary, and, having never bothered to tell anyone where he was going, is paying the price now.
As Boyle's film flits from the real world — the heavy reality of a man in a canyon, pinned, near death — to the world of dreams and delusions, so Franco's performance transforms, encompassing both universes. In the film's final act, he's a man in the throes of panic, dying of thirst but dreaming of drowning. When the time comes for his final stab at freedom, he summons not just the courage and physical strength to saw off his arm, but also the last vestiges of his practical former self to work out just how to do it.
About that sequence: It's kind of amazing. It is really gory and funny and compelling, with sound effects cannily standing in for pain. Despite including several horrible steps you probably haven't even imagined, it's over quick — but you'd be excused for thinking it takes forever.
The image that will stick with you, though, is not the dull blade slicing through flesh, but James Franco, eyes wild, slippery knife held firm in his mouth as he tightens his tourniquet, his cheeks smeared red with blood. It's a vision of ecstatic violence that brought to my mind, with equal parts sadness and excitement, Heath Ledger as the Joker. With this smartly chosen, intuitively delivered performance, Franco is assuming the role previously filled by that risk-taking actor: the serious sex symbol for the thinking movie fan.
And it's fitting, and fascinating, that it's this movie that will likely earn Franco — dilettante, enigma, artistic adventurer — movie-star status. The film that may turn him once and for all into an unapproachable celebrity, whose awards-season prospects may force him to abandon his extracurriculars from now until February, is itself a passionate, bloody argument for engagement with the world.