"127 Hours" is -- trust me on this -- an inspiring story of self-amputation. The film dramatizes canyoneer Aron Ralston's ordeal when a falling boulder pinned him against a rock face for five days. It sounds agonizing, and there is an atmosphere of desperation and loneliness through much of the movie. Yet in the wizardly hands of director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"), the nightmare becomes a tribute to Ralston's bravery -- without casting him as a hero. He just got tired of waiting to die and decided to live.

James Franco plays Ralston as a frolicking daredevil. In the introductory scenes A.R. Rahman's score yells youth and vigor, while split screens contrast Ralston, self-sufficiently setting off for a solo day of mountain biking and camping, with the herds of workaday sheep heading off to drab office routine.

Ralston powers his mountain bike to a crash and gets up laughing. He meets a couple of cute girl climbers and charms the pants off them (just about). They pick up on his carefree narcissism. "How much do you think we'll factor into his day?" one asks her companion.

The line packs a satirical punch, yet his new friends do play a recurring part in the dreams, premonitions and hallucinations that flood the climber's mind once he's trapped. Connections to his family and ex-girlfriend Rana (Clemence Poesy) remind Ralston that, despite being submerged in "pretty deep doo-doo," he has something to live for.

Flights of fantasy

You'd suspect that once Ralston winds up wedged into a narrow gorge with a Nalgene water bottle, a sandwich and no cell phone, the film would become an essay in claustrophobia like the recent "Buried," which confined its hero to a coffin for 90 excruciating minutes. Far from it. "127 Hours" follows Ralston's memory and imagination on digressive flights, and that's the film's central flaw.

Boyle puts a camera inside Ralston's flask to show his ever-dwindling supply of water. He zooms up, up and away from Ralston's cramped prison to a satellite's perspective of Utah's Canyonlands National Park. He switches to Ralston's video camera point-of-view as he clowns through a game show parody to lift his spirits, then dictates a heartfelt farewell to his family. Boyle's camerawork is so hyperactive and his editing so manic that the tedious gravity of Ralston's predicament rarely weighs on us.

I'd have been happier if the film made us feel trapped, too. Franco's performance, by turns pathetic and captivating, is powerful enough to hold our attention. "127 Hours" is fundamentally a punishing coming-of-age story as a cocky daredevil has the ego pounded out of him by indifferent nature. Franco's crestfallen expression as he realizes the series of selfish steps that brought him to this brutal comeuppance is more eloquent than any dialogue. When he tearfully tells his mother in a video message, "I wish I'd returned all of your phone calls," you feel it in your throat.

Let's cut to the chase: the amputation of Ralston's wedged appendage with a dull multitool blade. It's vivid and intense without being offensively graphic or gory. Boyle knows that simply imagining the event will give viewers the heebie-jeebies. I winced, averting my eyes once or twice, but when it was over my overall feeling was of admiration for Boyle's tact.

The queasiest aspect of the sequence is a jangling sound effect symbolizing the agony of severing a stubborn tendon. It will make your toes curl like a whizzing dental drill pressing down on a raw nerve. If a Best Sound Oscar can go to a single audio effect, we have a winner.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186