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Immovable Object, Irresistible Force

James Franco in 127 Hours.

127 Hours

Do I really want to watch this?” I asked myself as the lights went down in one of the spiffy theaters in the Bell Lightbox, new home to the Toronto International Film Festival. It was the height of this year’s TIFF and I was about to watch 127 Hours, one of the most anticipated movies of the year.

Unfortunately, the buzz was not entirely due to the fact that it was the first film from British director Danny Boyle since his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, or because it promises to be a star-making vehicle for actor James Franco, who is the only one on screen for most of the film.

No, what people are mostly talking about is the fainting.

It started out at the Telluride Film Festival a few days earlier, where two people passed out during the climactic scene of the film. Toronto surpassed that with an earlier screening than mine where three people fainted.

I don’t like to give away what happens in movies, but in this case it’s not much of a secret. The film is an adaptation of Aron Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, recounting a 2003 solo hiking trip in the Utah Canyons. Ralston became trapped when a large rock pinned his arm against a canyon wall. The rock was not going to move, and help was not going to come—he hadn’t told anyone where he was going. Obviously Ralston survived the ordeal if he wrote a book about it. But if you get him to autograph his book, he now does it with his left hand.

The knowledge that Ralston survived was what kept me in my seat. My stomach is not as strong as it used to be (though I once passed out at Hallwalls during a screening of Robert Mapplethorpe Having His Nipple Pierced). Gore doesn’t bother me as much as suffering. I still feel abused by having sat through Open Water (2003), where we spend 80 minutes watching two scuba divers trapped in shark-infested waters struggle to survive only to give up and die at the end.

I’m happy that I stayed with it. 127 Hours is easily one of the best films of the year, and while the eventual escape scene is undeniably grueling (self-amputation is not a simple matter), it doesn’t sneak up on you. The title refers to the length of his ordeal, so you have enough warning to be able to hide your face in your hands or head out to the lobby. (Just wait for the audience groaning to settle down before you return.)

It’s worth seeing precisely because it is a story of strength and survival. We first meet Ralston at work, in a city that Boyle films with all the hectic hurly-burly he can muster (and that’s saying a lot). He is an experienced nature enthusiast and mountain biker, confident enough in his abilities that heading into the wilderness by himself for a weekend. Unfortunately he’s too confident: In a macho flourish, he refuses to leave any information as to where he plans to go. (He excoriates himself for this in a weirdly funny scene later in the movie: Using his digital video camera to make messages for his family if his remains are found, he imagines himself as the guest on a talk show and admits to all the stupid things he did.)

Some of you might be thinking just the opposite, that 127 Hours sounds like a dull film: 90 minutes of one guy talking to himself? (He doesn’t even talk to himself all that much.) Danny Boyle may be capable of making a dull film, but this isn’t it. And in a part that amounts to every actor’s nightmare, an almost relentless close-up, Franco proves himself equal to the task. He’s been good in a lot of films for 15 years, but this performance raises him to a whole new level.

•   •   •

At the TIFF press conference for 127 Hours, Franco and Ralston spoke about their cooperation in getting this story on the screen.

Ralston says that it took Boyle some time to get him to agree to let him film his story. “When we met in 2006, there was a large gap between our visions for this film. I was seeing doing a docudrama and Danny at that time was presenting a drama. And I said thanks but no thanks.”

He finds watching the finished film an intense experience, not because of reliving the painful aspects but because it brings back the love of family and yearning for life that steeled his determination in the first place. “I was crying from about 20 minutes into the film. Not because of a pain I felt, but because it reminds me so effectively of what was so important that I got out of that canyon for.”

Joking that “I think I’m better looking,” Ralston otherwise found Franco a good choice to play him. “He’s hyperactive—that may be an understatement—and that’s me too. When my friends found out what had happened to me, they were flabbergasted. Not that I had cut my arm off, but that I’d been able to survive standing still for six days not doing anything.”

Franco took time off from his graduate studies (he’s on track for a Ph.D in English) to do the film, which actually helped him cope with the hurry-up-and-wait aspects of filmmaking: Confined to the set while being made up to appear physically deteriorated, he used the time to catch up on his studying.

The film doesn’t contain any climbing scenes, so Franco didn’t have to learn that demanding skill. “The main physical thing I had to do is Danny wanted me to lose some weight,” he says, tongue somewhat in cheek. “I went on Science Diet and I recommend it if you need to lose weight.”

The harder part was the emotional preparation. “Aron took us through everything he went through while he was there, why he did it and what he was thinking. He even acted it out for us, or went through the physical motions of it.

“And he brought a tape that had all of the videos he’d made in that canyon. He doesn’t really show that to people other than the family and friends that are addressed in those videos. And that was gold for an actor, because I got to see him in that situation, in the moment, when he was in the middle of it, not knowing he was going to get out. You can look back at the story in hindsight and say, that was horrible but he got out. But when I saw him in those videos he had no idea that he was going to get out. It was incredibly powerful. Because he made them until the last day, within an hour or two before he figured out how to get out, what I was watching was a guy really accepting his own death, but not wallowing in self-pity or anything. He upheld this front for everybody that he was addressing. He was making these videos for his family and friends so they’d have these last images and messages. It was very, very powerful.”

Watch the trailer for 127 Hours

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