October 7, 2016
Cast Away (2000)
That is, in all honesty, pretty much it for a synopsis of Cast Away. In narrative terms it is a very simple film: a guy washes ashore on an island, he survives there for a time, and he eventually tries to get home. I think that is perhaps why the film continues to be so consistently overlooked. Its director, Robert Zemeckis, is an acclaimed and award-winning director responsible for several massive commercial and critical hits including Back to the Future, Contact and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. People rarely seem to discuss Cast Away on a par with his more popular films, and I think that is more than a little unfair. The story of Cast Away may be simple, but the manner in which it is told - and the central performance by Tom Hanks - is remarkably good.
The film effectively breaks into four sections. The first sees Chuck in his day job, opening new branches of FedEx around the world and impressing on the company's new staff the important of living their lives 'by the clock'. This first section is almost entirely foreshadowing: Chuck lives his life devoted to a job, and a schedule, neither of which is going to matter in the slightest when he arrives on the island. Early scenes of his complaining about and then dismissing a mild toothache are obvious signposts for future trouble.
When his plane ditches into the ocean, it is in one of the most effectively composed and terrifying scenes of its type ever. We do not really get to see what actually happened and why the plane failed, because we see it all from Chuck's point of view. The sound design of the sequence is incredible.
Sound is such a huge part of this film. It is striking that for the majority of the movie there isn't any music at all, just the sounds of life going on. It is an important creative choice on Zemeckis' part, because once Chuck reaches the island we hear nothing but his actions, the wind, and the crashing of the waves. It is relentless, and while the wind and the waves are essentially background noise they have a way of creeping up on you. They emphasise Chuck's isolation. They underline his loneliness. It is all he can hear: the wind, the waves. Alan Silvestri's orchestral score only kicks in when he finally leaves. Even then when he is returned to civilization, and expects to reunite with his fiancee, but instead discovers she has married someone else in his absence, you can hear it rising in the background of an airport waiting room. The wind. The waves. Chuck, once again, alone.
The middle portions of the film present Chuck's first days on the island and then, following a narrative jump of four years, his final days as well. The contrast between the two is remarkable. The hapless panic of the early scenes make way to a far more dispirited, mentally affected tone. Four years into his ordeal Chuck is thinner, bearded, and his eyes have a glassy, empty quality to them. He spends half of his time talking to a salvaged volleyball that he calls Winston. The two halves of the island scenes showcase a remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, one arguably superior to either of those that scored him Academy Awards (Philadelphia and Forrest Gump). They actually suspended production of Cast Away in order to allow Hanks to lose the weight and grow the beard.
The harrowing psychological effect that his ordeal has on Chuck resonates through the rest of the film. When he manages to construct and sail a raft, he loses Winston on the open ocean. He is bereft, sobbing with grief at this missing inanimate object because in the world he has constructed for himself to cope, Winston is his only friend. Once picked up by a cargo ship, he is rushed back to the USA and put up in a luxury hotel. The bed is too alien too him now, and he sleeps on the floor. Perhaps most telling of all, the film ends with him driving off to a new life with a new volleyball on the passenger seat: he has escaped the island in physical terms, but emotionally it seems likely part of him will always be stuck there. It is a strange ending combining optimism with an underlying melancholy.
Perhaps the most impressive narrative element of the film is the manner in which it resolves Chuck's relationship with his fiancee Kelly (Helen Hunt). The idea of reuniting with her is what keeps him going on the island. When he returns to the USA, as I mentioned above, she has been forced to assume he is dead and has remarried. She has children. The film tempts the viewer with the idea, via a late night conversation between the two, that somehow Chuck and Kelly will reunite. They do not, and Chuck is left alone. It is a bold choice, but it is absolutely the right one. It makes Cast Away a much more measured and thoughtful film - one that avoids easy choices.
Tom Hanks has made a lot of great films over the course of his career, and while there are many roles and films I really like I think Cast Away remains my favourite of the lot. It's a distinctive and powerful film, beautifully paced and shot, and deeply effective.