Along comes Cast Away (2000) and its promise of a more realistic portrayal of life alone on a tiny island in the South Pacific, where reefs tear the skin with razor cruelty, a diet of coconut milk reeks havoc on one's bowels, and there's nary a monkey-butler to be found. I have no expectation that the Robert Zemeckis-directed movie showed everything, but its story of harried FedEx manager Chuck Noland's transformation from a chunky, privileged synecdoche for modern American life into an emaciated, half-crazed islander rings true, at least to me.
Unfortunately, most folks I know who've seen Cast Away dismiss the movie as dull. No action, little dialogue, laden with existential angst. I love it though: the shameless triumph of Chuck's first bonfire, the quiet majesty of urinating into the ocean under the Milky Way, and the somber pointlessness of a funeral held with no attendees. And I dig the movie's harsh shifts in chronology, particularly Chuck's blink-of-an-eye transportation from battered raft to air-conditioned plane flying back home.
I imagine that solders returning from the battlefield know that feeling too, the whiplash speed at which the vivid present becomes the distant past, at least to outside observers. Those who survive those sickeningly fast transitions must carry the mental lag with them for a long, long time. Even their loved-ones rarely understand.
The movie begins on a dusty road in rural Texas, and it ends there too. Again, a number of people tell me that they can't stand Cast Away's conclusion. Chuck regains his fiancée whom he left at an airport with the promise, "I'll be right back" -- only to lose her again. This damned movie wasn't a love story at all! It is about loss: loss of dignity, loss of possessions, loss of faith in the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of modern life.
At the end of the movie, Chuck has lost everything, carrying his world in a rental car. Yet he is more fully human than he's ever before been. Thus the meaning of the last lines, when Chuck meets Bettina:
Bettina: You look lost.We spend our lives seeking escape from what we've sought. We build cities only to dream of the "Old West." We covet jobs only to romanticize retirement. And we make fetishes out of communication devices only to bemoan the obligations of our hyper-connected world.
Chuck: I do?
Bettina: Where ya headed?
Chuck: Well, I was just about to figure that out.
Bettina: Well, that's 83 South. And this road here'll hook you up with I-40 East. Um, if you turn right, that'll take you to Amarillo, Flagstaff, California. And if you head back that direction, you'll find a whole lot of nothing all the way up to Canada.
Chuck: I got it.
Bettina: Well, all right then. Good luck cowboy.
But Chuck Noland has found a reprieve on that quiet crossroad amidst our empire of signs. Here, now, his freedom is most real. No one waits. No one trails. Every choice is new. For a moment at least, his life opens as an endless horizon.
Some people hated the ambiguity of his last stare into the camera, for Chuck is clearly not happy in the ways that magazines and television shows have trained us to interpret happiness. Yet he's not sad either. He will not follow Bettina down that dusty road, but he might. Some folks hate not knowing what happens next.
For Chuck, and for this movie, that's the whole point.
Visit IMDB's post on Cast Away.