Awards fodder: Gotta hand it to them

Why do we try to take a breath when we are drowning?

It is a primordial instinct, that odds-be-damned push to survive, that kicks in from our since-evolved brain, regardless of consequence.

And in the midst of starvation, dehydration, delirium and perhaps a host of other mental and physical impediments, adventure athlete Aron Ralston sallied forth, in a story that captured attention worldwide and made us pose to ourselves the question: “What would I do?”

Ralston’s travails were the subject of an inspiring 2004 book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” which serves as the basis of Danny Boyle’s latest headtrip, “127 Hours.”

James Franco plays the wily, wiry lead, with whom we spend little time before we’re joining him on that ill-fated day. It is a narratively risky but economical move for Boyle (“28 Days Later,” “Slumdog Millionaire”). But when the “event” takes place, and he is stuck, stationary and alone, for that titular amount of time, we begin to learn all that we need to know about Ralston.

Boyle is no doubt a compelling director, having first demonstrated it in 1994 with the feisty “Shallow Grave.” His instincts as an artist are sometimes perilous, which makes him a healthy match for his “extreme” sport-loving lead. There are few flashbacks, and only glimpses of life outside the sliver of rock in which Ralson is wedged, but Boyle is capable of keeping us riveted with his choice of perspectives.

Of course, it could not have been nearly as effective if Franco had not committed so thoroughly to the role as well. He’s capable of playing the cheery, sun-kissed thrill junkie with aplomb, but he’s also able to peel that back and come up with some astonishing depth.

Fear, anxiety, delusion, anger and pain: it’s all Franco, all the time, and he handles the shifts in tone like gears on a mountain bike. More than anything, he gives Aron a built-in recognition. We know this guy. We admire his spirit, but perhaps fault him for his overconfidence. But after his fall, we become him. What would we do if faced with similar situations, and just how far would we go to survive?

This, of course, brings us to the movie’s most buzzed-about scene. Yes, it is gruesome and excruciating. But it is also cathartic. Sports in general are about limits, and the sports that Ralston engaged in are about endurance. So Boyle fittingly makes it an endurance test for his audience. It’s an audacious move, but one that makes sense given the subject.

“127 Hours” may not be the easiest cinematic experience to sit through, but its rewards for doing so are plenty.

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