All the talk about 127 Hours both here in Toronto and after its premiere in Telluride had been about the big arm-cutting scene, in which Aron Ralston (James Franco) cuts off his own arm with a dull blade. And while that scene was indeed as visceral and horrifying as promised, I was more stunned by the emotional impact of everything that came before it. Director Danny Boyle is once again wearing his great big heart on his sleeve, and while 127 Hours covers some of the same uplifting, we-are-all-one-family ground as Slumdog Millionaire, it's a tighter and more technically impressive piece of work.

As much as Boyle's energetic collage of filmmaking styles and influence drives 127 Hours its power, the film would be nothing without James Franco, who is better than ever as the endearing but reckless and selfish Ralston. Aron is the kind of guy you knew in college, wearing Phish T-shirts and carrying Nalgene bottles and always antsy to get back out to the next mountain or glacier--girls go crazy for him until they realize he's already got his eye on the next horizon. He charms two of them (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) out in the Moab Desert mere minutes before his ordeal begins after a loose boulder pins him under a rock. As he futilely screams the names of the girls who are long gone, the camera zooms out from the rocky crevasse where Ralston is trapped to reveal the wild, empty desert around him; the boy who spent his life blithely running away from reality has now been slapped with it under the most harsh conditions imaginable.

It's not so much about what Boyle does to put us in Aron's emotional state as what he doesn't. Starting with tight close-ups on Aron's watch, shots from inside his rapidly dwindling water supply and a sound mix that emphasizes his panicked breathing and heartbeat, Boyle later allows his camera to wander where Aron cannot. Shots of the stark beauty up above him melt into flashbacks to his childhood and his latest girlfriend mash up against fantasies about what it would be like to attend the party he was invited to just before meeting his fate with the boulder (Scooby-Doo makes a surreal, appropriately funny cameo here). Aron's reverie and fantasies lead him to the same realization about needing society that Emile Hirsch's Chris McCandless had too late in into the Wild, but it's done much more subtly and effectively here. Not all of the narrative tricks work as well as the others-- Aron narrating a fake talk show into the camera feels too blithe, while a fantasy about a water rescue accomplishes little-- but miraculously they never feel like tricks at all. The gorgeous symbiosis of Boyle's energetic direction and Franco's fearless, unmannered performance make our time in the cave with Aron not a test of mettle, but an opportunity for all of us to emerge a little better and happier for it.

The triumphant, A.R. Rahman-scored ending may irk some who were looking for a darker, more Herzogian "man agains the wilderness" survival tale, but it's impossible to ignore how genuinely inspiring Ralston's story is, not to mention the marvel that Boyle has made a story about an accidental punishment into one of redemption and hope. Without ever leaning too hard on the emotional buttons or cheapening Ralston's personal story with too general a message, 127 Hours combines the power of cinema with a great story to terrify us and move us in equal measure. Said simply, it's wonderful.

More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.

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