Tom Hanks has forged such a strong and resilient bond with audiences that we'll follow him over the edge and into the abyss, confident that wherever he takes us, it will be worth the journey.
He tests that bond with Cast Away, a survival drama that ultimately becomes a moving statement about the human condition. It's hard to imagine another contemporary star who could do what Hanks does here, and I'm not referring simply to a startling physical transformation that involved losing more than 50 pounds and growing a year's worth of beard.
By now everybody who cares about movies knows what the film is about: A globe-hopping troubleshooter for Federal Express is the sole survivor of a plane crash and finds himself as a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a tropical island.
There's a 45-minute segment in the middle of the film in which Hanks' character utters barely a word. Instead we watch him as he figures out how to crack open coconuts, start a fire without matches, collect rainwater for drinking, and fish with a crudely carved spear.
Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis evidently have much faith in the rest of us, for this is the sort of purely visual storytelling that expects the viewer to pay attention, to understand what Hanks' character is undergoing, not through dialogue but through expression and posture.
And it works: Because this is Tom Hanks, we hang on for the ride.
The screenplay by William Broyles Jr. introduces us to Chuck Noland (Hanks) in Moscow, where he's playing drill instructor to a group of Russian FedEx employees. Instead of revving them up with quotes from Lenin, Chuck admonishes that “We live or die by the clock.” Chuck certainly does.
The film quickly establishes his romance with a graduate student (Helen Hunt) back home in Memphis, then sends Chuck off to the Orient on another mission. But bad weather brings down the plane in one of the most terrifying crash sequences ever seen. Moviegoers who have nightmares about drowning are advised to find another holiday movie to watch.
Once washed ashore, Chuck finds that time, his great adversary, is now irrelevant. Here there are barely seasons, much less a set schedule to keep. And there is no foreseeable end to his isolation. Survival and, eventually, escape are all that matter.
Even without other characters to play off of, Hanks makes this journey deeply affecting. He does have a companion of sorts. With his own blood he paints a face on a salvaged volleyball, dubs it “Wilson” after its manufacturer, and carries on one-sided conversations with it.
Eventually Chuck determines that he'll die on the island or succumb to madness unless he finds a way to escape.
So far Cast Away has been a gripping tale of a man against the elements. But it's in the film's final passages, set once again in civilization, that Hanks really nails us.
Watch how Chuck reacts to the convenience-filled modern world of which he was once a comfortable inhabitant. Now he appears almost dumbfounded by a buffet table filled with seafood. Ignoring his bed, he can find sleep only on the hard floor. Modern life, he realizes without actually saying so, is just a diversion to keep us from facing ourselves.
What you'll take away from Cast Away is the haunted, lost look in Hanks' eyes, a look that explains without a word of dialogue how profoundly this man has been changed by his ordeal.
Will Chuck Noland emerge a stronger person for what he has been through? Or is he as emotionally marooned in the 21st century as he was physically marooned on his island prison?
Cast Away has the good grace not to provide the answer but to allow us to interpret Hanks' magnificently understated performance as we will.