To attain the sublime, sometimes you must tempt the ridiculous, a thought which may come to mind when you realize that you are watching a movie where Tom Hanks' best friend is a volleyball named Wilson.
Cast Away is not ridiculous, but it is often close to greatness. Hanks may offer the year's best performance in Robert Zemeckis' haunting, masterfully restrained, breathtakingly refined story of the road not taken. What is wondrous is what director, writer (William Broyles) and actor do not do. This is a simplicity and elegance that tempts banality, but in its final 20 minutes, the simplest emotions take on the deepest heart.
When a plane bearing FedEx efficiency whiz Chuck Noland splashes down in the Pacific, he's stranded on a reef-encircled island, alone, with little more than his wits -- and a few choice FedEx packages that wash up -- to survive. If you make it through this ordeal, the film asks, can you ever be the same again? Cast Away ends on perhaps the year's most spare note, yet it is a conclusion of thrilling hope, in which Chuck has learned that the journey is the deal, and that you must pay attention on whatever road you are cast.
Cast Away is Hanks' baby. "I sort of had the original idea of this guy who was in this situation and then Bill Broyles and I talked about it for a long time," Hanks told me over dinner in Chicago last week. "He wrote many, many drafts, and we were just trying to figure it out. When Bob entered about year four, it really began to take shape. We started out with this kind of philosophical credo about the kind of movie that we wanted it to be. A writer and an actor can talk about this forever, but when Bob says, how do you shoot that, it winds up being substantially different."
Part of the credo they followed was never to veer from the point-of-view of Chuck. "Bob is brilliant about that. He never cuts to the exterior of the plane going through the clouds or something like that. So all it is, is these people inside this little room where all of a sudden all hell busts loose. I think it is quite powerful."
"The credo," Hanks adds, meant there had to be "an authenticity to everything that happened, that we couldn't fall off into a realm of cinematic narrative that wasn't going to adhere to that this takes place in a real universe and it happens to a real guy. How does he get off the island? That was a huge question. How does he get off the island? Well, does a boatload of Japanese tourists show up out of nowhere, a deus ex machina? Does Elle McPherson come ashore with a Sports Illustrated photographer? This kind of thing. Does he go crazy and start talking to himself? We didn't want this to be a kind of thing, that four years go by, and he's learned a lesson about himself, and he becomes Nature Boy when he gets back. Because I got news for you, you've been on that island for four years? You're going to take a shower and you want to go to Pizza Hut as soon as your stomach can digest the food! That was the area where it was tough. We could figure out the logic of how he got there, and we could work on the authenticity of everything that happened to him on the island. But when it came time for him to come back to Memphis, that's where it became very complicated."
The only "music" in the island passages of Cast Away is orchestrated sound effects, and that is a marvel as well. But how do you communicate Chuck's thoughts without him muttering like a madman? Chuck gets a friend -- a volleyball he paints a face with his own blood. One of the heart-wrenching scenes involves Wilson's peril when Chuck tries to unsuccessfully raft off the island. "It was not an easy day. We'd done it all pretty much in real time. Wilson had been around for quite a while."
Hanks notes the absurdity, but also the joy, of his scenes with Wilson. "If you want to be an actor, you should understand that the day will come -- if you are lucky -- the day will come, when you are in the water in Fiji, and you have to lose your best friend, who is a volleyball, and you have to do it in a fashion that is truly emotional and truly true. You can't pretend that Wilson is your dog who died when you were 7 years old, it doesn't work that way. There's a boat over there with a barge behind you and there's an underwater photographer that's shooting you and it's not standing up stage and doing an audition piece from Shakespeare, it's this other thing that has to be absolutely authentic. To be able to get to that place with more distraction than you can possibly imagine. I think I'm a professional, and I was able to summon it up. It wasn't a pleasant experience. Emotionally, it was hard."