A funny and telling thing happened while watching “Cast Away” the other day. There were a couple of instances where Tom Hanks’ character, a FedEx systems engineer named Chuck Noland, becomes injured in the water and starts to bleed. Immediately everyone around me tensed up and collectively muttered “Oh no, sharks.”
It’s amazing how much film has influenced the way people view real life. Thanks to “Jaws” and all the fin flicks that followed, audiences have come to believe that every time someone bleeds in the ocean, a shark will magically appear. It’s a cliche, best left suited to pulpy films like “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. Sharks are usually a suspense device used when the filmmakers don’t trust their story and characters enough.
“Cast Away” is different. The filmmakers’ trust us, even respect us, and never go for the obvious. There isn’t a shark to be found in “Cast Away.” Nothing magically happens in this film. Everything is earned. “Cast Away” is smart, and funny, and ultimately amazing.
It features a towering performance from Hanks, who has never been better. He delivers a performance filled with courage, wonder and complete conviction. There isn’t a dishonest emotion in his delivery. You believe in his character, and share in his adventure and disappointment.
Like most people who work in high-pressure jobs, time is money to Chuck Noland. At FedEx, it is Noland’s job to make sure that everyone is working at their peak so that the packages get delivered on time. When we first meet Noland, he’s rallying a group of Russian employees, convincing them that every minute they waste is a minute lost forever.
Noland’s life is as exact as the second hand on a clock, a fact not lost on those who share his world. They admire his drive, but wish he would occasionally stop and smell the roses. Especially fiancee Kelly Frears, an understanding undergraduate who finds it hard to stay mad at Noland, even when he has to interrupt Christmas dinner to baby-sit a plane to South America.
Time catches up with Noland when the plane crashes into the ocean, killing the crew and sending him spiraling into the churning sea, eventually washing up on a deserted island. Relying on his wits and instinct, Noland creates a makeshift, temporary home. As the days turn into months, his hopes of being rescued vanish.
Writer William Broyles does a remarkable job of making all of this matter. He avoids the pathos and melodrama of “The Blue Lagoon.” What he delivers is a detailed road map that takes us on a journey filled with real life observations and reactions. His observations are so precise that it allows director Robert Zemeckis the opportunity to use cinematic shortcuts without sacrificing the integrity of the story.
Once Hanks firmly establishes Noland’s survival instincts, we leap four years into the future. The brilliance of Broyles’ script and the film in general is that we don’t need to see Noland go through the motions for four years. We know he will adapt, and indeed the next time we see him he looks like a seasoned survivor. His hair is longer, he’s 50 pounds leaner, and resembles a modern day Robinson Crusoe.
A lot has been written about how Hanks lost the weight for the film’s third act, and indeed the physical transformation is remarkable. Hanks doesn’t stop there. He not only looks like a different man, he acts like a different man. His eyes show us someone who has lived through four difficult years. We believe that this man has changed, that he has gone through a personal metamorphosis.
The sincerity of Hanks’ performance makes everything he says and does matter. Hanks hardly speaks during the film’s second act, yet his action say more than words ever could. There’s real joy when he learns how to make fire, and honest sympathy for his only companion, a volleyball named Wilson. It’s a testament to Hanks strength as an actor that the bond between Noland and Wilson is not only believable, but vital.
Zemeckis captures all of the wonder and beauty with a meticulous eye. There isn’t one wasted frame in the film. It’s truly amazing how Zemeckis is capable of making epic entertainment that feels intimate. He takes us places and shows us things that we have never seen before.
I truly respect the director for not making this a film of convenience. Noland doesn’t wash up on some lost paradise with running streams and wildlife. He washes up on a pimple of an island. He doesn’t become master of his domain. He’s forced to adapt.
Zemeckis is blessed to have “Forrest Gump” cinematographer Don Burgess behind the camera. The images are both beautiful and haunting. Ken Ralston’s visual effects and Arthur Schmidt’s editing are seamless, while Alan Silvestri’s score is majestic and touching.
Filled with memorable images, true adventure and a Oscar-worthy performance by Tom Hanks, “Cast Away” is a modern day classic. It will endure over the years because it is honest.
TOM TOM CLUB
Hanks soars in deserted island adventure
Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Jenifer Lewis, Geoffrey Blake, Chris Noth. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. 143 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
LARSEN RATING: $8