Watching a crazy guy trapped by a rock for 127 hours is hardly the formula for a moving story. But in the hands of Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and James Franco (Spider-Man, Eat Pray Love) you get an experience that will stay with you a lot longer.
Aron Ralston (Franco) is a 26-year-old rock climber, who goes out on his own, doesn't tell anyone where and never returns his mum's calls. He's an outsider, a loner with a smile, who knows how to instantly charm two females he stumbles across. His devil-may-care charisma matches the twinkle in his eye and soon he's off on his merry free-spirited way. It's not long before he slips, falls, and his hand is jammed tight against the canyon wall by a rock. And we are stuck with him.
You wouldn't think this is the stuff of an action movie hero, which Boyle claims it to be; it is more of a psychological drama, and a journey of the mind. Boyle uses special effects to take us into Ralston's imagination, his memories, his desires, delusions and illusions, then zaps us back to reality to show how practical and resourceful he is. Visually, some of these effects are startling.
It does raise the questions: How would you cope? What would you think about if you were convinced of your demise? It is the stuff of dramas since Shakespeare. Ralston scratches out his name with RIP on the wall, and uses his movie camera to record his thoughts. He sends himself up as if talking to a radio show host, and suddenly shows his frailties.
This is deeply moving without grabbing at the heart strings. And there is dark humour here too. After allowing his urine to settle so it will mature "like a good sauvignon blanc", he declares: "Any day you don't have to drink your own urine is a good day." And so say all of us.
Director Boyle shows great restraint; there are no violins and symphonic music to herald triumph; the music is used to tell us about Ralston, and becomes sparser. He relies on a powerful story and his actor to carry the impact and Franco is stunning; he doesn't need tears to show us he's hurting and he will reach into your emotions and tweak them while he smiles. Let's not use the cliché "inspirational"; he transcends that and delivers something much more powerful than that.
It's no spoiler to say he survives, as it is based on a true story told in Between a Rock and a Hard Place written by Ralston, but this adds to the impact. Many will wince at the thought of the "escape" scene, when he cuts off his arm. By this time, you are so captivated by this man, you are ready to help him. But you will flinch. And don't let that deter you from seeing this powerful, visceral film.