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Danny Boyle drawn to triumph out of tragedy in '127 Hours'

Charles Ealy

Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle has yet another awards contender, two years after winning Best Picture with "Slumdog Millionaire."

It's "127 Hours," the miraculous true story of Aron Ralston, who was trapped in the Utah wilderness when a boulder fell on him in a narrow canyon and wedged one of his hands to the wall. The only way to escape? Cut off his lower arm with a dull knife.

With James Franco in the lead role, the movie screens tonight as part of the Austin Film Festival (it's scheduled to open in Austin on Nov. 19). And as audiences will discover, "127 Hours" is full of paradoxes.

"I found it to be the most extraordinary story," Boyle says in a telephone interview. "It's obviously about a guy who has to cut off his arm to survive, but it's much more than that. It gives you a sense of life again, of renewal."

That sense of life and renewal comes from the emotional roller-coaster ride Ralston takes while being virtually immobile.

Ralston went to the remote Blue John Canyon, near Moab, Utah, without telling anyone of his plans in 2003.

"It's often portrayed as a superhero story," Boyle says. "And Aron seems to be a superhero at the beginning of the movie. He's a perfect specimen. He's very bright, having studied mechanical engineering. And he simply doesn't want to be in a box. So he turns his back on the city and his relationships and heads out to Utah alone."

For the first 10 minutes, Boyle captures the exuberance, the seemingly unlimited freedom as Ralston rides a bike over the beautiful, dangerous landscape and heads into the wilderness.

"And yet Aron is not a perfect man," Boyle says. "He has a long way to go in his journey back to humanity. And I believe he taps into a collective, communal will to survive. He remembers his parents, his friends. He has a vision that he someday might have a son. And that's how he summons the courage to survive, only after he realizes that he needs other people."

Boyle says he wanted to seduce the audience in the first scenes, especially one where Ralston meets two young women and guides them through a secret passageway to a freshwater pool, before heading out alone to explore the Utah canyons.

"We wanted to let the audience see his satisfaction, his ability to navigate the wilderness," Boyle says. "We wanted that part of the film to be ceaselessly pleasurable. But then we wanted to let nature have its moment, when Ralston realizes that a mere grain of sand can slip and dislodge a boulder and change his life forever."

Much of the movie focuses on Franco's face as he struggles to dislodge the boulder that has trapped his lower arm. During five days in the canyon, he can't lean on the boulder to get any rest because his body is too low in relation to the rock. And he can't stand comfortably because it puts too much pressure on his trapped arm. So he uses some of his rock-climbing ropes to rig a setup to raise his lower body and relieve stress. This also allows him to get a few hours of sleep each day. "Even though his feet were on the ground, he couldn't crouch down, nor could he lean fully over the rock," Boyle says.

Ralston tries to chip away at the boulder with a knife, but the knife becomes increasingly dull and has no effect. He doesn't have much water, so he saves and drinks his urine to stay hydrated.

But he does have a video camera, which he uses to record messages to his parents and friends as he becomes increasingly convinced that he will be found dead.

"Virtually all the video messages are verbatim," Boyle says. Ralston "showed us his recordings, and we tried to be faithful to them. He told us he would occasionally go back and watch his messages because he didn't want to upset his mother. So he'd edit and re-record the messages so that he wouldn't look too upset. And then, when the situation grew even more desperate, he left the most beautiful message for his mom and dad, saying that he hadn't shown them enough appreciation. It's just so human and amazing."

But Boyle says the filmmaking team deviated from the messages in a key scene — one that will probably earn Franco a Best Actor nomination. In the scene, Ralston pretends that he is being interviewed by a bubbly TV personality who raises obvious questions such as: "Why didn't you tell anyone where you were going?"

And as Franco goes back and forth in character between TV perkiness and trapped-by-a-boulder depressed, the audience gets to witness the comeuppance of someone who's finally realizing he isn't so super. It's touching, sad, revelatory — and brilliant.

All of this, of course, leads up to the critical scene in which Ralston decides to cut off his arm. He first breaks his radius and ulna bones in his arm by shifting his weight. Then he feels for the break in his arm and starts using his dull knife to tear away the tissue.

To film the scene, Boyle had a set — and a model arm — built. "It was all medically researched, with the internal musculature being exactly represented," he says. "James . . . kept making his way through the arm with his knife, cutting away. . . . And during the filming, he just went somewhere in his head. While doing this, he sees a vision of a young boy, perhaps someone who could be his son." (Ralston has since married and indeed has a young son.)

Boyle says the scene was the most difficult to film in "127 Hours," but that it was necessary.

"You have to be careful when filming it," Boyle says. "If you go too far, you're venturing into horror territory. But if you don't show it, you trivialize the journey. We took as our bible Aron's description in the book he wrote (''Between a Rock and a Hard Place'')."

Ralston's journey in the canyon is ultimately one toward grace, Boyle says. "Aron realizes that he needs people, and as he has often said: 'I left there a fuller, complete person, even though I had to leave a part of me behind. I would choose that journey again.' "

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Austin Film Festival Tuesday's highlights:

  • 'Louder Than a Bomb,' 5 p.m., Arbor
  • ‘Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story,' 6 p.m., Texas Spirit Theater
  • ‘The Space Between,' 7 p.m., Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center for the Performing Arts
  • ‘127 Hours,' 7 p.m., Paramount Theatre
  • ‘My Name Is Smith,' 7:15 p.m., Arbor
  • ‘New Low,' 7:30 p.m., Alamo Lake Creek
  • ‘Sons of Perdition,' 8 p.m., Texas Spirit Theater
  • ‘Bloodworth,' 9:15 p.m., Rollins Theatre
  • ‘The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan,' 9:15 p.m., Arbor
  • ‘Fair Game,' 9:30 p.m., Paramount Theatre
  • ‘Echotone,' 10 p.m., Texas Spirit Theater
  • ‘Brother's Justice,' 10 p.m., Alamo Lake Creek

More information: austinfilmfestival.com

Read our ongoing coverage at austin360.com/movieblog.