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Cast Away: Escapism of a Different Kind

by Jason Comerford

Escapism is, by definition, designed to take one away from the problems and rigors of everyday life. Director Robert Zemeckis has specialized in this very thing for much of his career, and there's no question that he's good at what he does. So it's perhaps fitting that he's turned to escapism itself for the source of his latest film, Cast Away, and by turning the idea inside out he's made what is certainly his finest film yet. Cast Away begins with a trademark example of Zemeckis' beautifully-developed sense of visual storytelling: The camera follows a FedEx package from its Texas sender to a Moscow shipping hub, where Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), paces in front of a group of Russian employees, delivering (through a translator) a diatribe about always being on time. Noland, in the first section of the film, is always in motion, a nervous man attached to his beeper, with one eye always on the clock and the other fixated on a hundred other things at once. He's the prototypical American mover-and-shaker, the picture of capitalism in flourish, but with a personal life he's allowing to slip slowly out of his grasp.

Noland, as envisioned by writer William D. Broyles, is indeed always missing something important, and it's with this very simple idea that Zemeckis builds and sustains a remarkable focus of character. When Noland's plane crashes, he's dumped onto a deserted desert island -- no food, no beepers, little except a few washed-up FedEx packages and the clothes on his back. He now has all the time in the world. If the script is a little too obvious in some of its symbolism (Noland is dumped on the island on Christmas), Broyles manages to keep the story from falling into the Lord of the Flies / Heart of Darkness traps that The Beach so haplessly fell into.

What Zemeckis has done with Cast Away is a real rarity in big-budget, star-driven Hollywood filmmaking: an existential character study. Broyles and Zemeckis clearly aren't interested in mining the same territory that Golding and Conrad first discovered -- the man-versus-nature plot as a way to explore the depths of human savagery -- but are interested instead in the concepts of time and patience and inevitability. Note the way Zemeckis, with marvelous subtlety, characterizes Noland visually, without being obvious about it: he's always almost missing the things that would save him. At an early point in his island stay, he gets up in the middle of the night to urinate, and nearly misses a telltale light on the horizon. Later on, after he's managed to escape the island, he nearly misses seeing the ship that will save him. This all is mere setup for the film's quietly devastating final section, where Noland comes to terms with the things that have passed him by.

The framing device that Broyles has created for the story -- in particular Noland's relationship with his put-upon girlfriend (well-played by Helen Hunt) -- at first smacks of "setup" a little too obviously. You keep looking for the material things that Noland will cling to on his island stay, and sure enough, there's a picture of Hunt in, ironically, an old stopwatch that is given to him as a Christmas present. But Broyles clearly believes in the old maxim "absence makes the heart grow fonder," and by the time Noland returns to the world he left, the economical way in which the relationship was set up makes perfect sense. And to top it off, Noland's catharsis -- as he finally looks back in the direction of his salvation -- rings clear and true because we've not been subjected to an overstatement of the obvious. (When Hunt tells him, "I have to go home now," it's perhaps the most penetrating moment in any movie this past year.)

I'm usually suspicious when movie-stars get their heads in the clouds and try to make films whose characters are loftier than their own talents of persuasion; there's a big difference these days between an actor and a movie star. Tom Hanks has always teetered on the brink with me; I enjoyed his comic turn in A League of Their Own, as well as his no-nonsense performance in Apollo 13, but there's something "actorly" about his work in Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan that always leaves something of a sour taste in my mouth. In Cast Away he's finally given a performance that makes emotional sense, and the movie would be nothing without it. There's a tremendous amount of technical skill alone in the performance -- note how animated he is in the first half of the film, with all that likable Tom Hanks energy snapping and popping. But by the time we've reached the four-year point in his island stay, all that manic real-world energy has been drained away, replaced by a remarkable stillness. By the time Noland has returned to the world, it has moved on despite his absence, and Hanks' incredible control tells us everything, the hurt and anguish in Noland's soul practically oozing out of his pores.

Cast Away, for all its attributes, still isn't perfect. There's a minor subplot involving the sick wife of one of Noland's co-workers; its thematic point is obvious from the get-go and there's no real weight behind it when it's brought full circle. And the film's transitions are often too jarring; I kept wanting to see more of Hanks' transformation back to society, rather than relying on a cop-out title reading "Four Weeks Later." Where's the cry of anguish, the shell shock of seeing a world that's just kept on going? Minor quibbles, yes, but when the rest of the material is so well done the less-than-perfect elements stick out more than they should.

Alan Silvestri's score amounts to very little -- perhaps fifteen minutes worth, all reserved for the film's last third -- but it's good stuff nonetheless, a lilting monothematic piece of work that speaks to Noland's emotional release without overplaying its welcome. What was most interesting about the score was not necessarily its usage but the silence that presaged it; even during the end credits the music is interspersed with moments of sound -- the wind rushing through the trees, the water hitting the beach. It makes sense, given the quiet, controlled movie that Zemeckis created for Silvestri to score, but it also makes one wonder about where they're going to go from here; for their next collaboration, Silvestri might be lucky enough to get in a chord or two before the lights come up.

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