Primal Screens

Tom Hanks plays Federal Express systems engineer Chuck Noland in Cast Away, and his job takes him all over the world with very little advance notice. He’s such a manic, time-is-money company man that it comes as something of a relief to us when he ends up stranded, after a plane crash, on a remote and uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Only the memory of his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), whom he intended to propose to on New Year’s Eve, keeps hope alive – her Christmas gift to him, a family-heirloom timepiece with her picture inside, becomes his talisman.

At its most basic level, Cast Away is a graceful and powerfully rendered survivalist saga. Hanks’s Everyman quality has never been more aptly utilized: He’s the perfect stand-in for all of us who never made it to Eagle Scout. Robert Zemeckis, who directed from a script by William Broyles Jr., doesn’t overdo the Robinson Crusoe stuff; we get just enough information to show us how Chuck makes it through. With virtually no dialogue for long stretches of the movie, Hanks brings us very close to the man’s utter terror and loneliness.

And yet there’s something generic about Chuck’s plight. Zemeckis has said that his movie is “not so much about the survival of a human being but rather the survival of the human spirit,” and this tone of uplift sits heavily on the story. Cast Away turns out to be a movie about what is important in life – about what all that surviving is for. We’re supposed to divine, along with Chuck, life’s higher purpose. The filmmakers don’t opt for the usual happy-face Hollywood ending, but even the half-smile they provide smacks of inspirationalism. Hanks, who conceived this project years ago and clearly has an emotional investment in it, wants us to be carried away by the power of faith and redemption. But he’s too good, too honest an actor to fully buy into his own agenda. He brings a bleakness to Chuck that extends right through to the end of the movie, and it’s too unsettling for this instructional fable of hope. What I took away from Cast Away was not its mite of message but instead the image of Chuck shrouded in seclusion, with no companion but a washed-up volleyball from the plane crash, onto which he has painted, in his own blood, a human face.

A good subject is thoroughly and methodically wasted in Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life, starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, which is about the kidnapping of an American engineer in a South American country and the attempt by a professional ransom consultant to negotiate his release. Apparently it is now big business for terrorists – mostly mercenaries and drug lords with dubious revolutionary political ties – to abduct high-level American executives from their foreign-based posts. (The film takes off from a Vanity Fair article, “Adventures in the Ransom Trade,” by Bill Prochnau, and Thomas Hargrove’s autobiography.) American corporations doing business overseas routinely factor into their insurance policies the costs of abduction, spawning in the process a new industry of kidnap negotiators consisting mainly of ex-CIA, SAS, KGB, and FBI agents.

In Proof of Life, the abducted engineer (David Morse) is left stranded when the corporation he works for goes belly-up, and so it falls to Russell Crowe’s Terry Thorne, a tight-lipped former SAS commando turned hostage negotiator, to bring him out of the jungles alive. Meg Ryan’s Alice is the engineer’s wife, and the pre-kidnap scenes with her husband convey the all-too-convenient revelation that her marriage is wobbly. Being in a bad marriage allows Alice to shoot smoldering glances at Terry and still retain audience sympathy, even as her spouse, growing progressively hairier as the film lugs along until he resembles a woolly mammoth, is repeatedly battered and tortured for our delectation.

Ryan and Crowe, despite all the real-life publicity surrounding their pairing, never get to indulge in anything more than a chaste kiss, and so all the strong-silent simmering between them seems kind of a cheat; after all the teeth-gritting and hacked limbs, we have a right to expect from this romance more than a wimpy Casablanca-style fade-out. But the political-thriller genre has been in the doldrums since the end of the Cold War. Proof of Life tries to resuscitate the Cold War mentality by portraying former communist rebels as hepped-up, doped-up curs; they make the banditos who converged upon Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre seem statesmanlike by comparison. The only proof of life in this moribund movie comes from Pamela Reed’s brief turn as Alice’s sister. She packs so much intensity into every line and gesture that she gives her cameo the fullness of a starring role.

Ed Harris has wanted to make a film about Jackson Pollock for more than a decade, and now that he’s finally made it, you can see why. Harris has always been an intensely kinesthetic performer as well as the rough-hewn inheritor of the Brando-Dean tradition of action acting. Pollock, flexing his Ab Ex muscles, was the archetypal action painter, and his doomy, boozy persona, as much as his art, was an icon of postwar bohemianism. He would sometimes paint straight from the tube, and his life seemed to come straight from the tube, too; he poured everything out and yet could also seem furiously inhibited and forbidding. He was an inchoate orgiast, and Harris, who both directed and stars in Pollock, captures the artist’s divided soul. Harris doesn’t go in for a lot of great-man posturing, and there aren’t many of the Aha! moments one might expect from a Hollywood film about a famous painter. (Pollock’s discovery of his “drip technique” is admirably underplayed.)

Instead we get an almost punishingly exact portrait of a pathologically thin-skinned genius who reacted to the slights and upheavals of life with an almost feral intuitiveness. The real Jackson Pollock was cannier about the way he played into the American public’s perception of the artist-as-outlaw than the Pollock of this picture. Harris’s Pollock is all instinct, and you can see in his raging, self-dramatizing physicality what fascinated and repelled his coterie of lovers and admirers and hangers-on. He’s an immensely, insufferably liberating force, and one of the film’s great achievements is its depiction of the ardent purgatory of Pollock’s marriage to Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, who is very fine in a difficult role).

As a first-time director, Harris isn’t as powerfully expressive as he is as an actor; the script, by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, is rather conventional, and Harris doesn’t attempt to come up with a visual or emotional equivalent to his subject’s art (which is what Robert Altman achieved in his Van Gogh movie, Vincent & Theo). The result is somewhat confounding: a methodical, straightforward movie about a hair-trigger iconoclast. But Harris as an actor does justice to his long-term passion to play Pollock. When you think of his performance and then think back to the famous Hans Namuth movies of Pollock at work, they merge together in the mind. They share the same swagger and creepy, closed-off intensity.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in Depression-era Mississippi, but its real locale is that rarefied and icy-hot postmodern nowheresville peculiar to the Coen brothers. This time around, though, the Coens’ usual arch deliberateness isn’t quite as deliberate, and there’s an appealing shagginess to some of the episodes and performances. The plot is a variation on The Odyssey, with three escaped convicts from a chain gang, played by George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, encountering sirens, a blind prophet, and a cyclops (John Goodman as a jolly, homicidal Bible salesman wearing an eye patch).

In most of the Coens’ movies, it seems as if the brothers are up in the clouds taking potshots at their people, but here they seem more indulgent and affectionate. The paradox of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it’s a facetious tall tale that still manages to mix in the most unreasonably beautiful country-folk music, including a rendition, by Ralph Stanley, of “O Death” that is doubly shattering because the character doing the singing is a Klansman. This is the Coen brothers’ most emotionally felt movie, and that’s not meant as faint praise.

Primal Screens