Cast Away: There’s a Good Movie in There; All The Pretty Horses Disappoints

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Robert Zemeckis’
Cast Away transpires in three sections that are wildly different from
each other in purpose, tone and quality. The first, which introduces Tom Hanks
as a troubleshooting, globetrotting FedEx executive, and then sends him into
an airborne storm that leaves him stranded on a tropical island, is as functional
but unremarkable as such expository passages tend to be. The third section,
which chronicles the hero’s eventual return home, misfires, alas, running
on too long and frittering away many of the film’s earlier strengths. The
second section, however, is so terrific that it deserves to be considered a
separate movie–one that may be the best thing Hollywood has turned out
this year.

Is the Robinson
Crusoe idea simply an airtight concept? Put a star like Hanks on a pretty island,
stand back and watch the celluloid magic happen? Hanks, whose idea the film
was, and Zemeckis have said they worried that the thing could easily fizzle,
and I think they’re right. There was no guarantee. With zero human interaction
and plenty of chances for ham-fisted contrivance, the island portion of Cast
could have proved noxiously boring or inane, or both. That it turned
out so astonishingly well reflects the high degree of skill, assurance and ingenuity
in the execution, plus certain ineffable qualities that perhaps can’t be
anticipated until you see the movie actually weave its captivating spell.

The story opens
on a Western ranch as a package is picked up by a FedEx truck, beginning a journey
that will be completed only years later, at the movie’s end. We next jump
to Moscow–bustling, harried, post-Communist Moscow–where Chuck Noland
(Hanks) is giving an emphatic time-is-money lecture to a group of glassy-eyed
Russian workers. A bit later, back in Memphis, TN, we see Noland comfortably
surrounded by family and his loving girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt). The main
virtue of this introduction is that it tells us things simply and clearly: We
are in the era of the global economy, watching a decent, ordinary man whose
world is carefully measured out as increments of time, work, leisure and affection.
A world, in short, where "human nature" is inextricably meshed with
technology’s artifices.

We can’t
help but wonder what happens when such a world explodes, since it is ours, too.
The air crash that ruptures Noland’s existence sends him plunging deep
into the ocean: an arresting image of death, rebirth and christening all at
once. He emerges, dazed but uninjured, on what looks like a stereotypical South
Seas island.

The film quickly
establishes its primary virtue by focusing on the essential while avoiding the
easy and overobvious. Of course, Noland flounders around trying to make sense
of his surroundings and sussing out the skills he needs to survive. He collects
rain for drinking water, and at length manages to make a fire. His feet get
badly cut before he improvises passable shoes. He buries the body of a FedEx
worker that washes in, and sets up Kelly’s photo (mounted into a family
heirloom watch: a transparent, forgivable symbol) as a constant, close-at-hand
reminder of the things he loves.

If you think
of it, though, there’s an endless number of sappy possibilities that Zemeckis
and screenwriter William Broyles firmly and admirably sidestep, everything from
the melodramatics of a crying-jag-cum-breakdown to an infinity of Gilligan’s
-like gags. Instead, we get things like this: among the FedEx packages
that wash to shore, the contents range from a volleyball to videotapes to a
pair of ice skates. Nothing that’s tremendously hilarious or life-savingly
useful, in other words. Just an odd bunch of stuff that probably would
be in such a shipment. Yet it’s not all drolly disposable: Noland uses
those ice skates to crack open coconuts, one of his toughest early challenges.

The volleyball,
meanwhile, becomes his one companion. Noland draws a face in his own blood on
the ball’s surface, and names it Wilson, for the trademark it bears. He
talks to it, and it seems to listen. A wonderful stroke of invention, this device
is like much about the movie: smart but not overdone, a handy symbol that also
refracts real emotional imperatives. Who, in the same situation, would not devise
some absurd way to fend off the demon of loneliness?

Besides its
narrative intelligence, this portion of the film has so much going for it on
the dramatic and stylistic levels as to make you realize that Hollywood, at
its best, has always excelled at the special alchemy of visual storytelling
and actorly charisma. Zemeckis and Hanks famously collaborated on the gratingly
cute Forrest Gump, but the island portion of Cast Away–which
depends on a premise rather a gimmick, and a believable hero rather than sentimental
cartoon–is a far superior film, one that makes the most of both men’s
talents. Not that there was any doubt after Saving Private Ryan, but
Cast Away reiterates Hanks’ status as this era’s Hollywood
Everyman, the embodiment of a democratic, middle-class ideal that sets the big-tent
American cinema subtly but decisively apart from the class-bound imaginations
of Europe. For the actor, the tropical setting underscores the triumphant passage
of his last decade: what a long way he’s come, you think, since Joe
Versus the Volcano

The film’s
themes, too, are perfectly suited to the movies’ broad canvas. Daniel Defoe’s
Robinson Crusoe arrived not long after marine circumnavigation sparked
the first glimpses of a global economy; with the "here be monsters"
portions of maps filled in by sea lanes, literate people contemplated the strange
fact that human society seemed to have the upper hand on nature, which suddenly
became a discrete, alien, conquerable thing. Cast Away likewise arrives
at a critical juncture: the moment after cellphones have girdled the globe in
another sort of human web, one furthering the tricky, fragile illusion that
nothing is beyond technology’s grasp.

What would
you do if that illusion suddenly burst? Could you make a fire or split
a coconut? Cast Away induces the viewer to ponder such questions, yet
the way it does so is just as important as the asking, because it reminds
us of a special property of cinema: its amenability to solitude, to inward,
individual reflection.

To say that
there’s something primal and elemental about Zemeckis’ movie is to
speak not only of the natural world it conjures but of its relationship to the
medium itself. A movie that might’ve been jointly made by Griffith, Chaplin
and Flaherty, Cast Away’s central section strips away all the complications
of dramatic development, action and multiple characters, and allows us to see,
for once, cinema’s most essential operation unadorned: viewers identifying
with a single human figure, who inhabits a magical visual realm that persuasively
stands for all of existence.

It has been
suggested that this imaginary process mimics the solitary pleasures of reading.
If so, it sets Cast Away–and every movie–apart from Survivor,
which, like all of television, favors social ritual over solitude and cannot
imagine the world apart from technological intrusion. And when Noland, after
years of solitude and a last heroic effort, finally returns to civilization,
it’s as if the movie itself suddenly reverts from the vivid idiosyncrasy
of cinema to the bland conventionality of tv. Movies exist to tell us that people
change, where tv reassures us that our favorite personalities are the same,
night after night, week after week. The makers of Cast Away seem not
to understand that the audience returns to society with Noland still in the
mental frame of a movie: they want to see how he’s changed. Instead, the
film tries to tell us that he’s just the same: he still loves Kelly and
his job, etc. This is a horrible, fundamental miscalculation that saddles the
movie with a tedious and distended denouement. Yet it does nothing to erase
the memory of the great movie that exists at the center of Cast Away.


All the
Pretty Horses
by Billy Bob Thornton

There was a
moment early in Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses when
I happily fell into the embrace of a familiar, long-missed pleasure. It was
the image of two young cowboys riding like freedom itself across a wild and
desolate plain, heading for Mexico and adventure. This, surely, is the primary
promise of the western: that we might join the characters’ headlong lunge
toward danger, romance and elusive opportunity. If only the promise were as
easy to keep as it is to make.

All the
Pretty Horses
has been trailed by rumors of trouble for nearly a year. It
was said to have existed in versions of up to three hours; the film released
by Miramax runs just under two. I’ve heard colleagues opine that the movie
needed the extra length, and I can agree that the present version feels oddly
choppy, with rhythms that belong to a longer, more leisurely paced film. But
that doesn’t necessarily mean that longer would have been better. Rather,
Horses, which was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller, seems
beset with the most common problem of movies made from finely wrought literary
novels: stripped of the transforming magic of language, the unadorned story
can seem oddly uncompelling.

The story here
definitely lacks something–a strong through-line, a sense of inner necessity
driving the narrative’s picaresque unfolding. Matt Damon and Henry Thomas
are the two cowboy buddies we see early on, and both actors contribute solid
performances to the film. Even better is young Lucas Black, who’s brilliantly
rough-edged and idiomatic as the runaway who gets his traveling party into some
very bad trouble. In fact, what ails the movie has far less to do with any aspect
of execution–Thornton’s direction is capable if not terribly distinguished–than
with the curious intractability of the material. Though the tale, which was
adapted by Ted Tally, includes romance, peril, death and some colorful equine
action, it never adds up to the kind of rugged unity that marks a good western.
As has happened countless times before, the novelist’s wily horse deftly
eludes the filmmaker’s earnest lassos.