Cast Away (2000) is a film about a relatively fat, engaged man who ends up stranded on a remote tropical island, makes friends with a volleyball, loses a lot of weight, and finally makes his way home on a raft only to discover that he’s no longer engaged, and in addition is no longer friends with a volleyball.
In some ways it’s a miracle that Cast Away manages to be entertaining and moving despite featuring only one actor (Tom Hanks) for most of its running time. At one point the character Tom Hanks is portraying (Chuck Nolan) suffers a total mental breakdown because a ball is too far away, and the scene in which this happens is devastating, rather than, as you might expect based on that description alone, funny and confusing. Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis know how to tell a story.
However, even though it’s great, Cast Away is almost undone by its three-minute long penultimate scene.
Before we get to that, let’s recap the main points of the film.
Chuck has been right through the shit, surviving a plane crash, a self-administered dental extraction, a suicide attempt, and then four years of solitude before setting out on a flimsy raft to face almost certain death on the Pacific. Somehow, despite his raft taking such a severe battering that an astonished whale actually surfaces to gawk at his predicament, he ends up being rescued by the crew of a liner and taken home.
Unfortunately, when he arrives home he discovers that his fiancee Kelly has left him for a dentist, having assumed that he was dead, or at least indefinitely unavailable. In the third to last scene he visits her at home to retrieve his old car. As he’s driving away she follows him out into the rain, calls him back, kisses him, tells him he’s the love of her life, gets into the passenger seat. But then she remembers that she has a kid with the dentist. Bummer. She gets out of the car. Bad luck Chuck.
The film begins and ends with a shot of the same crossroads. Down one road lives a sculptor, whose unopened parcel Chuck has been protecting for four years as an identity-sustaining symbol of his link to his old life of quotidian dependability. At the end of the film Chuck could take one of two roads – he could go to the sculptor’s house (romance) or he could carry on ahead (adventure). We don’t know which way he’s going to choose when the end credits arrive, and this is how it should be. An ambiguous ending is like a narrative party bag for the audience to take away and enjoy. It’s the storyteller entrusting the audience with end of the story.
But this pleasingly open-ended conclusion just makes the preceding, second to last scene all the more perplexing.
Immediately after Kelly steps out of Chuck’s car and goes back into her house, we find him at his friend Stan’s house by the fire, wrapped in a towel and nursing a stiff drink, looking more like an ordeal survivor than at any point so far. This is a nice enough touch that conveys the impact of his loss.
But every line that comes out of Chuck’s mouth for the next three minutes is utter garbage of one kind or another.
Here’s a clip (I can’t include the whole thing for copyright reasons, but you can see in this excerpt that even Tom Hanks struggles to deliver his lines like a human):
Full transcript: We both had done the math (sic). Kelly added it all up, knew she had to let me go. I added it up, knew that I had lost her, because I was never going to get off that island. I was going to die there. Totally alone. Maybe I was going to get sick, or injured.
The only choice I had, the only control, was when and how and where it was going to happen. So I made a rope, and I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, you know. Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log snapped the limb of the tree. I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing.
That’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope, and all my logic said that I would never see this place again.
So that’s what I did. I stayed alive, I kept breathing, and one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again.
I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly, but I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island.
And I know what I have to do now. Keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?
The first maxim you are likely to hear when you take even the remotest interest in creative writing is “show, don’t tell.” Storytelling guru Robert Mckee elaborated colourfully on this maxim when he urged writers to use subtext. “If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep shit.”
Though Chuck’s monologue contains a corny metaphor about tides, it’s completely without subtext. He’s simply telling his friend how he feels about the things that have happened to him, describing to the audience in the process events that they’ve already witnessed, and feelings that they are perfectly capable of inferring for themselves. He even describes – in detail – what’s happening in real time: “And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass.”.
Yes Chuck, we know.
“I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly.”
NO. FUCKING. SHIT.
It’s a conspicuously awful bit of dialogue that presumably exists as a sort of recap, to make sure the stupid, stupid audience fully understands what has taken place before the film ends. Stan doesn’t even have a line – he sits dumbly, only present so that Chuck isn’t delivering the monologue to himself or, worse, thinking it in his head, like Captain Picard.
So could the scene have been cut? I’ve done a quick edit to see how it would look.
The change in mood is quite jarring, so here it is again with a long blackout.
Not perfect, but better.
I expect the ending does need a scene there to smooth the transition between rainy night-time heartbreak and sun-drenched hope. Maybe something neutral and functional, about his employment or financial status, or the trip he’s about to embark on. Whatever you might come up with, it would be an improvement on the three minutes of absolute dross that currently threaten to sabotage Cast Away in its final moments.