Watch what James Franco—actor/sleepy grad student/tepid writer/viral-video comedian/ conceptual artist/aficionado of gender-fuckery—can accomplish when he actually focuses for a couple of weeks. In Danny Boyle's latest, Franco plays Aron Ralston, who in 2003 cut off his own arm after being stuck for five days under a rock in a Utah canyon. The boulder drops about 20 minutes into 127 Hours. Ralston begins devising clever systems of survival and, he hopes, mechanisms of freedom, all the while narrating his predicament into the video camera he's brought along—a device that seems awfully blunt at first, but which 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, the descent into delirium begins. 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 hallucinations and memories, so Franco's performance transforms, encompassing both universes. Unlike Boyle's flashback-dependent Slumdog Millionaire, we're not meant to draw explicit lines from past to present—there's no scene of a young 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's left human connection behind. It's fitting that the film likely to turn Franco—dilettante, enigma, artistic adventurer—into an unapproachable celebrity is itself a passionate, bloody argument for engagement with the world.
The loner (Franco) meets hikers Kate Mara (center) and Amber Tamblyn.
Opens at Guild 45 and other theaters, Fri., Nov. 19. Rated R. 95 minutes.See Brian Miller's interview with Boyle.