By Sean Collins-Smith
There are good films, and there are great films. Cast Away is a great film, and the reason why is obvious: Tom Hanks’ performance.
This is one of those roles many actors dread: read an interview with most of them, and they’ll discuss the hesitation in which they approach characters who have little or nothing to say, because it means they have to emote without the crutch of witty, depressing, hilarious or gratuitously foul dialogue.
On the other hand, it’s one of those roles that can blanket you with affection for a performer’s talent, crystalizing an already impressive career and introducing you to something you’ve never seen him or her handle before.
But it’s also something else: take away any interactions they might have with society for 90 minutes, and what you have isn’t a quiet misanthrope meandering from place to place, but a lost soul who doesn’t even have the luxury of choosing who not to talk to.
So what we witness in Cast Away isn’t just a quiet, quixotic performance by one of the great every-man actors of our time, but a quiet, quixotic, one man performance by one of the great every-man actors of our time.
And let’s be equally upfront about something else: this film is truly, truly great.
It’s quiet, contemplative, and courageously un-Hollywood. That’s not to suggest it’s small in scale – Cast Away is epic in its own way – but it bravely bucked the times when it was unapologetically common for films to be loud and, well, entertaining dammit!
Just a mere glance at the top 10 films of 2000 shows what kind of work Cast Away was competing with: number one is the noisy with a capital N How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and along with it are action-packed fare like X-Men (#8), Gladiator (#4) and Mission: Impossible II (#3).
How did Cast Away manage amongst all that bombast? Second place, with $233 million in domestic receipts (and almost another $200 million overseas).
Without a pair of exploding sunglasses, murders, sword fights or convoluted plot twists.
What it does have is a clear point and purpose: keep breathing.
Chuck Noland (Hanks) works as an executive for FedEx, and his job requires him to travel – a lot. His girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) loves him dearly, he has a toothache, and he isn’t a jerk. Thankfully, the latter means we won’t have to go on a journey of self-discovery with Chuck as he redeems himself and becomes a nicer guy (gag). What it does mean, however, is that Chuck – by all means a successful, decent man – has nothing (initially) to gain by his marooning on a deserted island for some four years. He merely has to survive.
And it is during his survival the film sets itself apart.
The opening act is good, but ordinary – the time spent on the island is utterly remarkable and infinitely engaging.
And Island Time is preceded by a helluva plane crash, filmed entirely from Chuck’s perspective (that means no outside-the-plane God’s Eye View shots). We’re as horrified as he is when his plane suddenly and inexplicably takes a straight nosedive toward the ocean. As water rushes in and quickly fills the cockpit, the guttural and mechanical moans spreading throughout warn Chuck of something that happens seconds later: the Pacific ocean caves in the roof, and he’s in a whirlwind of wires and water.
It’s real, and it’s rattling. Bodies boulder past him in the soggy chaos and suddenly, he’s reached the surface, foregoing suffocation for something perhaps even worse: a raging storm in a wet Middle of Nowhere, accompanied by the sight of his airplane exploding.
If that’s not an exciting way to be birthed, I don’t know what is.
For make no mistake, the moment Chuck wakes up on his new sandy residence, dripping wet from Earth Sea, he’s a new person. His beeper is dead, his watch has stopped, and all human contact has been severed.
He’s not just a stranger on a strange island, he’s the only stranger on a strange island. And we, as the audience, are in a new place cinematically: it’s difficult to notice at first, but as Chuck’s exploration of the island goes deeper, we realize there is absolutely no music. The whole time he’s on the island, the only noises come from his talking and the island’s natural sound – a great example of artistic restraint that makes Cast Away at times feel less like a film and more like a documentary.
As he gathers packages that slowly surface from the wreck, buries a dead body and crafts island clothing, he embraces an unsettling truth: rescue may never come.
He admits this to one of the film’s most ingenious creations: the infamous Wilson, a volleyball violently created in Chuck’s own image (Wilson’s human-like face is borne from Chuck’s blood after he gashes his hand) and whose presence gives Chuck – and the audience – a second character to interact with.
The minimal dialogue arises from their (decidedly one-sided) conversations, whose topics range from talks of rescue to suicide.
Much to the chagrin of Chuck, he also has to re-learn everything that cavemen learned thousands of years ago. Water? Fire? Food? All of these everyday commodities are luxuries in this place, and Chuck finds that out the hard way. Trivial things like bottled water and ice and microwaves take a back seat to rubbing two sticks together and dancing wildly screaming “I have made fire!!!!” on a sandy, fire-lit beach.
In essence, Chuck learns how to be a person in the necessarily minimalist sense: find food, collect water, build a fire, live under a shelter and, in the absence of human-to-human interaction, imitate the real thing as much as possible.
Amidst the packages he collects early on, he decides to leave one unopened. And from this we get one of the two strands that keep Chuck connected to a life on far: one last delivery. If a man is his occupation, Chuck isn’t in a hurry to cast that aside.
His second past-life keepsake is a pocket watch with Kelly’s picture in it, and if his unopened package is a reminder of his past life, the watch is his motivation to return to it. It is for her he struggles to survive.
And I do mean struggle. Sure, he has to create fire and hoard water, but remember that toothache? He hesitated to make an appointment with the dentist – they’re scary, right? – and for that he’s relegated to performing a self-tooth removal in one of the film’s most wince inducing scenes. When he knocks that sucker out, he also knocks himself out, and the audience is knocked four years into the future where Chuck’s pudgy, comfortably fed figure has been chiseled and worn away into a frame with only the necessary muscles attached.
The transformation is startling – his wiry frame is the first thing we see – and it’s also indicative of all the baggage he’s shed. He isn’t worried anymore about beepers or schedules or money, just surviving.
And boy has he been busy.
He’s been meticulously crafting a raft and keeping count of the days and months, which subsequently decide the seasonal tides, so as to time his Island-escape perfectly. When he eventually makes his escape, he turns back to the island one last time to see it enveloped in a sheet of gray rain. He has unceremoniously outwitted fate.
Chuck’s return home is marred by two things: his best friend’s wife has died – he told him he’d be there for him, and he wasn’t – and his own girlfriend, Kelly, is now someone else’s wife.
It’s at this point the film finds its purpose.
Tom Hanks delivers a monologue (seen in the vid below: FYI, this is all one continuous shot) about survival and how, when all hope is lost, people tend to give up. He did just that: in an episode we only hear Chuck describe, he apparently went to the top of a cliff in an effort to hang himself.
After testing it – and the test failing miserably – he comes to a realization: he can’t even decide how he will end his own life. But that failed test ensures he’ll keep breathing, and it allows him to see what the tide – both figuratively and literally – will bring him next.
And really, that’s the point of it all: keep breathing to see what the tide will bring you. If you’re lucky – I mean really, really lucky – it’ll be a PortaPotty wall to use as a sail. He’s well aware of how alone he feels, but as he says to his best friend: “I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island.”
As the film closes, we see Chuck standing at a massive crossroads in the middle of nowhere. If it’s a visual representation of cramming something down your throat – look, he’s at a crossroads! – no one can argue the film hasn’t earned it (not to mention the fact the same crossroads function as the opening shot of the film). It’s true, he is at a crossroads, and what’s more, he can take one of those roads to further explore that first strand which kept him connected to the Real World: remember that package? Turns out it belongs to a woman who gives Chuck directions while standing in the middle of those crossroads, and as she drives away, he comes to that realization.
And he’s got to wonder: when the sun rises tomorrow, what will the tide bring?
5 stars out of 5