Cast Away, at its fundamental core, is nothing new. It's a Natural Man story, addressing what we are when all the trappings of civilization are stripped away from us. It's a What's Really Important story, with a man learning a lesson about priorities, during the holiday season no less. Director Robert Zemeckis and writer William Broyles, Jr. aren't exactly being tricky about the messages they have to present in Cast Away. It's pretty much right there, spelled out in letters as big as the ones Tom Hanks' character Chuck Noland makes on his deserted island beach out of fallen trees.
I could lay out every theme and plot point in Cast Away -- if the trailer hadn't beaten me to it -- and it would still be a gripping experience. This is one of those movies that proves the overwhelming primacy of "how" over "what" in the ultimate effectiveness of film story-telling. Hanks' Noland is a corporate trainer-type for Federal Express, the guy who darts around the globe for them figuring out how to get workers to shave minutes off what they do. He'll even dart off on Christmas night, away from his girlfriend Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) to shave minutes off in Malaysia. But those minutes become exceedingly irrelevant when Noland's plane crashes en route, stranding him on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific. Thus begins a battle for basic survival, followed by a battle not to despair when all evidence suggests that he'll never return home again.
The lion's share of the commentary about Cast Away will focus on Hanks' performance, which is as it should be. Let's just be clear that it's not the DeNiro-as-LaMotta physical stunt he pulled off turning himself into a gaunt shadow of himself. This is film acting that should humiliate every Academy member who voted for Hanks in Forrest Gump or Philadelphia into some sort of ritual self-flagellation. His performance ranges from fierce determination as his intellect (and some convenient flotsam from the crash) gives him a shot at survival, to pure joy at his small victories, to a dead-eyed resignation in the later scenes that's positively chilling. For over 75 minutes, Noland's personal journey has to carry Cast Away without a moment interacting with another human being. Hanks never leaves a moment of doubt that joining Noland on that journey will be time well spent.
As good as Hanks is, it would be ridiculous to give all credit for Cast Away to one man. Robert Zemeckis, a director who can fall flattest when he's trying hardest to impress, steps back with patient, under-stated direction. He orchestrates a plane crash sequence that is quite simply the most primally terrifying disaster ever committed to film, an onslaught of roaring sound and natural fury that makes The Perfect Storm look positively flaccid by comparison. Cinematographer Don Burgess does marvelous things with both the beauty and the desolation of Noland's island. And Broyles' script deserves far more praise than it's going to get because there's so little dialogue. The conflicts are kept simple but harrowing, and the introduction of a volleyball Noland calls Wilson as his lone companion is pure inspiration. You know a film is doing something very special when the fate of a piece of sporting equipment almost brings you to tears.
Cast Away hits only two significant bumps on its way to daring storytelling perfection, but they are indeed significant. One involves an inexplicable leap over the middle portion of Noland's stay on the island -- and what are his moments of deepest depression -- only to give Hanks a lengthy monologue describing a crucial moment during that time. The visual jolt of seeing Hanks suddenly transformed can't overcome the sense that something's missing. The second bump comes during the final half hour, which could only come as a let-down but still takes too long to get where it's going. Yet even during its
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