That’s only the first indication that Franco is about to nail a role that’s staggeringly challenging, because of how showy you might expect it to be when a guy has to carry a film almost entirely on his own. While a brief early sequence shows Ralston flirting with two women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he meets in the wilderness before he’s trapped, and flashbacks occasionally take us out of his rocky prison, the rest of 127 Hours consists entirely of a guy self-defined by his independent capableness methodically coming to the realization that he is completely screwed.
Co-writer/director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) comes perilously close to overplaying that point, building toward Ralston realizing the errors of his solitary ways in a manner that feels like an unnecessary trek into melodrama. He’s much savvier at building visual variety into Ralston’s static story, from a dramatic pullback to show the desert around him to a brilliant sequence of Ralston imagining himself as a talk-show guest.
Smartest of all, he knows when to ease up on the throttle and let Franco’s performance carry the narrative. The result is still plenty harrowing—including a graphic representation of the extreme action Ralston takes to save his life that’s not remotely for the squeamish—and viscerally affecting, but never feels like exploitation. It’s a tragically human story, captured by something as simple as one incredulous glance.
James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn