Sometimes (even oftentimes) in the world of film criticism, the word "triumphant" is thrown around. It's often used to describe a film, perhaps more often a performance. I've certainly used it; it's a term I like to pull out when a film seems to go beyond the call of duty. When it's more than art, entertainment, or a combination of both. When the story, images, and characters pop off the screen and go with you, and the lasting impression left on you means something more than having killed a couple hours in a big, dark room with a bunch of strangers. Now, after watching 127 Hours, I feel I've never used "triumphant" in the correct critical context before.
James Franco's performance is simply astounding. He, as an actor, is triumphant because his character is, and because he delves into what it means to be bringing this incredible story to life on the big screen for mass consumption. This is a tough role - Franco is basically putting on a one-man show, and he does so elegantly. We feel Aron Ralston's pain because Franco feels his pain and shows it in every line of his face, verbalizes it with every sigh, and lets it control him even as he battles to take control back and find a way out of his dire situation.
It's pure, masterful art. Franco is simply flawless. Trapped by the boulder, much of his performance lies in his facial expressions, and he is able to deftly switch from desperation to comedy to a brutal will to survive, all while being barely able to move. I've rarely been so impressed by an actor's work; Franco is wholly deserving of the Oscar.
Danny Boyle's kinetic, energetic direction is a perfect match for Franco's easy-going goofiness, and even when the film becomes grounded in the narrow canyon where Ralston was trapped, Boyle always keeps things interesting. He and co-writer Simon Beaufoy weave flashbacks and hallucinations into Ralston's dilemma to great, heart-breaking effect, and the premonition that drives Ralston to finally dive whole-heartedly into amputating his own arm is breath-taking in its tenderness.
Also impressive is Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography. Instead of letting the confined space limit their camera techniques, they tackle every possible angle, often bringing the audience uncomfortably close to the action. Shots through the bottom of Ralston's water bottle mark time and heighten the sense of urgency. The addition of home movie-style footage brings Ralston even closer to the audience; when he expresses his delayed gratitude to his family, you'll likely find yourself thinking about the last time you told your parents how much you love them. It's a great device, and is put to best use in one of the film's funniest scenes, when Ralston interviews himself Gollum-style. The combination of the dark humor, varied cinematography, and Franco's impressive facial dexterity pitch the scene perfectly; it's a lighter moment that is nevertheless grounded in the gravity of the situation.
Complementing and combining Chediak and Mantle's beautiful shots is Jon Harris's dynamic editing. The use of split-screen is particularly brilliant, put to use in innovative ways throughout the film: the bookend sequences mark Ralston's departure from and return to society, and the technique in general represents the multiple facets of a seemingly simple tale. Yes, when it comes down to it, 127 Hours is a film about a mountain climber who gets stuck under a boulder and has to cut off his own arm. But it's so much more than that. It's about a man overcoming the physical, emotional, and intellectual strains of an unthinkable situation. It's about responsibility, love, and the will to live. Above all, it's about the triumph of the human spirit, show more clearly and beautifully here than in any other film I can think of.