Depending on how you choose to look at it, Danny Boyle either makes inspirational movies about distressing subjects or distressing movies about inspirational subjects. Trainspotting is a picture about a heroin addict who kicks the junk; Slumdog Millionaire is the rags-to-riches story of a desperately poor orphan who finds fortune and love on a game show. On the other hand, Trainspotting is a picture about a man who dives into the filthiest toilet in Scotland to retrieve opium, and who eventually betrays his friends; Slumdog Millionaire's hero plops into an even filthier latrine, and for a long while that's the best thing that happens to him, except for the time he escapes being forcibly blinded.

Boyle's new movie, 127 Hours, is in keeping with his happy-bummer contradictions: It is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a rock climber who in 2003 got his right arm pinned beneath a boulder, was stuck in a Utah canyon for five days, and ultimately survived by amputating his own limb with a dull utility tool. However appealing or appalling that premise sounds to you, the one thing that must be said for the movie is that it is never dull. The one thing that must be said against the movie is that it is never dull.

Actually, a second thing should be said for 127 Hours: It's a reminder that no matter how many other hobbies he undertakes, James Franco is primarily one hell of an actor. If anybody ever says Franco can't act his way out from under a rock, here is direct evidence to the contrary. He spends much of the movie in solitary confinement, and in agony, but his performance isn't interior or off-putting. Before his fateful slip, he has the bounding energy of a happy dog. Leaping and sliding across the sandstone of Blue John Canyon, he encounters two day hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara), and apologizes for having startled them by not initially removing a bandana from his mouth and nose. "Can't take this off," he says, pointing to his wide grin; "it's my face." The joke works on several levels—the first, obvious one being Oh, James Franco, we don't want you to take your face off, because it is so pretty, and the second is Oh, James Franco, you will soon be taking your arm off, and this is foreshadowing. To the actor's credit, he seems to be enjoying both layers.

Then that big boulder comes loose to smear bits of Franco across the canyon walls, and he's doing the rest of the picture solo. He's very good at communicating not merely pain but annoyance—the crisis has all the frustrations of locking your keys in the car, except instead of his keys it's his arm. He performs a bravura talk-show sequence, complete with a laugh track, where he plays the roles of host, guest and caller—the scene reminded me, with its fierce dedication to splintering consciousness, of the one-man Rambo reenactment in Flooding With Love for the Kid. But the most intriguing bit of the performance is less showy: It's the small, mysterious smile that appears on Franco's face in the moment before he pulls out a knife and starts digging in.

The amputation is about as harrowing as you'd expect (I'd never heard so many sharp intakes of breath at a critic's screening), but it's over reasonably quickly—though not before Boyle deploys his inside-the-arm cam, which somehow isn't quite so upsetting as the outside-the-arm cam, or the inside-the-Nalgene-bottle-of-urine cam. There are a lot of cams: Boyle still loves the cacophonous montage, and often 127 Hours resembles a Nike commercial more than a drama. Boyle doesn't have the patience to let the isolation expand into desolation, the way Gus Van Sant might have. At the movie's end, as with the similar but more affecting Into the Wild, we're meant to gain an appreciation of how wonderful it is to not be alone. But maybe Boyle doesn't leave Franco quite alone enough. On the other hand…no. There is no other hand.


127 Hours

is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.