Danny Boyle's films have always been about men staring into the abyss - individuals who pull back from teetering on the brink of destruction, whether it's down to vice, obsession or desperation. 127 Hours is DanBo stripped down to the basics, pitting man versus nature. The only difference is that Aron Ralston is stuck in the abyss, staring out.
127 Hours was always going to suffer from 'Titanic syndrome' - the fact that audiences will almost certainly know how it ends. Ralston, a foolhardy thrillseeker, took a spill in a deserted Utah canyon and wound up with his right arm trapped beneath a rock. Spoiler alert: he cut his fucking arm off to escape. That likely garnered a '"Holy shit!" or three back in the day, but almost everyone knows how Aron Ralston's story ends by now. So how to make a movie out of it? Just how cinematic can a dude cuddling a pebble really be?
You suspect Boyle relished the challenge that 127 Hours presented, more than the opportunity to tell the story. While Ralston is indeed at nature's mercy for around 7,620 minutes (give or take) and stuck at the bottom of a dusty crevice, Boyle never allows his movie to stagnate. Through various methods (flashbacks, fantasies, video recordings, general stunt camera fuck-uppery), Danny boy ensures we never see the same shot twice. Boyle gets inside Ralston's water bottle, his camera, even his arm. It's showing off, basically - a grand old 'fuck you' to those who said it couldn't be done - but it keeps things visually interesting and the framing is often quite breathtaking.
Franco is front and centre at all times, and is predictably magnificent. The character of Ralston - who, in all honestly, you'd probably tag as a douchebag if you met him the week before his accident - isn't the most sympathetic of protagonists: he makes his own bed and gets stuck in it. But that's the essence of the character's catharsis, and Franco sells it expertly. It's not showy or overly theatrical, but understated and measured. You feel a Tom Cruise-type would only be straining to get his arm free to hold aloft the Oscar it might bring; with Franco, the ordeal feels natural - horrible and preventable, but natural.
All of which puts you right down that hole with Aron, and has you just as desperate to get out. 127 Hours asks a big question of its audience: could you do what Ralston does when it came down to it? That's a compelling enough poser to keep you watching through your fingers - just when does that supposedly in-built survival instinct kick in?
Come the grisly crescendo - scored with some of the best sound design you'll ever hear - Ralston makes his last stand: a tremendously liberating, extraordinarily uplifting act that isn't just thematically satisfying, it's moving too. Which is quite fitting really, all things considered.