*All the Pretty Horses (PG-13)
Miramax Films/ Columbia Pictures
*Cast Away (PG-13)
Christmas releases with massive pre-release publicity campaigns should always be held in suspicious regard. Especially ones touting big names like Hanks and Damon. And especially ones that promise cinematic retellings of superior literary works or classic myths.
In the case of Billy Bob Thornton's film version of Cormac McCarthy's award-winning novel, All the Pretty Horses, and Robert Zemeckis' contemporary Robinson Crusoe, both filmmakers have succeeded admirably at producing compelling takes on traditional themes.
And in a year that has produced the least memorable roster of films in a decade, that's reason for hope.
Thornton owes the bulk of All the Pretty Horses' success to a superb screenplay adaptation by Ted Tally, best known for his screen adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. Tally recognized the brilliance of McCarthy's spare, regional dialogue and kept much of it intact, leaving the sweeping expository passages to the cameraman's wide-angle lens. The result is an epic Western populated by a cast of characters who are heart-wrenching in their honesty, endearing in their coincidental courage and memorable in their plain-spoken narrative.
Matt Damon is perfectly cast as John Grady Cole, the last of a line of Texas ranchers whose family land is sold, and who sets out for Mexico in search of life as an authentic cowboy. His sidekick, best friend Lacey Rawlins, is ably played by Henry Thomas. And the strange young horse wrangler who joins them along the way, as played by Lucas Black, is one of the most startlingly fresh characters I've seen onscreen since Black's debut in Thornton's Slingblade.
Homage must be paid to the cinematography and the magnificent landscapes, most filmed in Texas and New Mexico, starting with the enchanting image of a herd of wild horses flying across rock-riddled terrain and ending with a tired and sadly matured Cole idling across the wide West Texas ranchland where he grew up. In every segment of the film, epic landscapes serve as backdrops to the quiet, intimate tale of Cole's coming of age.
At the heart of the book, and the film, is the price paid for honor in a life that offers, at every turn, the chance to behave dishonorably. Thornton and Tally preserve and dramatize the theme without preachiness (no small task), and Damon, in particular, is able to look like a real person faced with actual puzzling dilemmas, not the usual slick hero who always gets the girl and rides off into the sunset feeling pleased with himself.
Which brings us to Cast Away and Tom Hanks whose trademark good guy has become so cloyingly familiar that even those of us who like him were nervous when we heard he was to play a man stranded on a deserted South Pacific island following a plane crash. We should have known better.
Cast Away is not a great film -- it wanders in the end and loses dramatic momentum almost fatally -- but Hanks' is a great performance. When we meet him at the beginning of the film, he is a hyperactive Federal Express systems specialist, busy training Russians to be efficient, timely delivery men. He is irritatingly smart, glib and precise. But his comeuppance is surviving a plane crash that kills all the other passengers and washing up on an island where he is helpless against the elements.
Here, Zemeckis' skill comes to play, creating an atmosphere, a place where the viewer is drawn to feel as if she is actually there, partaking in the action. Hanks is touching, funny, painfully human. We grow to love him because he makes the best of the situation by succumbing to a bit of madness, passing his time talking to a volleyball, washed ashore in a FedEx package.
When he is finally rescued and returns to civilization, we don't give a damn about what will happen with his girlfriend at home, nicely played by Helen Hunt, we just want to see how he will adjust his life, given what he has learned. Zemeckis missteps and gives us what we don't want, but we can forgive him because the moments on the island were so entertaining and so remarkably well-acted by Hanks.