Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” released in 1960, famously terrified audiences to the point where a generation was checking the door locks before taking a shower. Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws,” released in the baking summer of 1975, kept many people on the beach and out of the water. Now along comes “127 Hours,” which is not exactly a horror film, but will definitely leave viewers reluctant to venture off hiking or rock-climbing without a GPS device in their pocket.

The reason for this is simple: “127 Hours” tells the (true) story of Aron Ralston, a guy who goes canyoneering in a Utah national park, falls into a crevice and gets his arm wedged under a boulder. After several days of waiting forlornly for rescue, Aron has to decide whether or not to cut off his own limb to free himself.

Not that I’m giving away anything here: This is all in the trailers. The thrill comes not from suspense as to what might happen but, rather, how in the world director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) will make a movie out of such a grim, hemmed-in situation.

127 Hours (127 Jikan)
Director Danny Boyle
Run Time 94 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens June 18, 2011

Rest assured, he does. Boyle is a relentlessly energetic filmmaker, who cuts his films like he’s just chugged a six-pack of Red Bulls. Just recall that frantic, drum-pounding opening in “Trainspotting,” with Renton and Spud frantically fleeing the cops, or the scene in “Slumdog Millionaire ” where his camera follows those urchins through the mazelike streets of Mumbai. What’s entertaining in “127 Hours” is to see how Boyle uses every trick in the book to transcend the limitations of one guy stuck under a rock.

Boyle engages in minimal setup: Aron wakes up, drives to canyon country, meets a couple of female hikers long enough to prove that he’s a loose cannon prone to taking risks… Then he stumbles into that crack, and that’s where we’re stuck for the rest of the film. Boyle uses video-cam shots (the real Ralston kept a running video diary of his ordeal with his one free hand) and a huge variety of camera angles to keep things interesting. Beyond that, the film opens up onto the landscape, and descends into Aron’s mind -in the form of memories, regrets and hallucinations — before slamming us right back to that damn rock in the gully.

James Franco puts in a winning, charismatic performance as Aron. He starts off all cocky and self-assured but, once trapped, he goes through the whole spectrum of emotions: rage, denial, self-pity, hope, panic and finally a major gut-check when he realizes there’s only one way he’s getting out.

Of course, a big part of “127 Hours” is the dread of knowing what is coming before the credits roll. Make no mistake: Whatever it’s merits, “127 Hours” is not for the squeamish. The self-amputation scene, though not exaggerated, joins Jessica Alba’s death by beating in “The Killer Inside Me” as the second scene this year to make me bail and close my eyes. It’s a credit to Franco’s performance that the scene is so painful — we feel for his character. There are certainly plenty of films with worse violence (“Antichrist” for one) in which the viewer feels next to nothing.

At first glance, “127 Hours” would seem to resemble those gnarly survival movies where a stranded protagonist will do damn near anything to survive, whether that’s cannibalism (“Alive”) or hobbling down a mountain face with a broken leg (“Touching the Void”). Actually, it’s closer in spirit to films such as “Into the Wild” or “Grizzly Man” — also based on actual events — which both feature overgrown boys for whom the wilderness is one vast playground.

The heroes of both those films wind up dead, one starved to death in the dead of winter, the other eaten by a bear he thought was his buddy. Aron Ralston got off a bit easier, but like so many young men, he was cursed with being utterly unable to imagine his own mortality. “Nature,” idealized so intensely by people feeling trapped by the artificiality and confines of urban life, contains not just freedom but risk as well, and we forget that at our peril. Of course, anyone with a total disregard for nature’s risks may be able to find profitable employment at a Japanese power utility.

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