Castaway and the Five Stages of Grief

Castaway is a 2000 film about a man struggling to survive on a tropical island by himself for 4 painstaking years. Except, its more than that. Its visual storytelling is its greatest strength, rarely ever presenting new information without it. So, what exactly makes this film so special?

Castaway is a roller-coaster of emotions that uses the lonely setting of an island to signify Chuck Noland’s struggle through his separation from his girlfriend Kelly, and the inevitable acceptance of his loss of his relationship. The film itself is a message to the audience on how to move on. The film uses Wilson, Chuck’s volleyball friend on the island to show us his gradual maturity throughout the movie. From its fantastic visual storytelling to Tom Hank’s intoxicating performance, Castaway teaches us the horrors of divorce and the harsh reality to moving on.


A Broken Marriage


The symbolic theme of divorce is present throughout the entirety of the film. In the first scene of the film, we are introduced to a FedEx driver pulling into a ranch. The camera pans upwards as we see a metal sign with the words “Bettina” and “Dick” written into the sign. We later see the significance of this sign in the end when we see that “Dick” is sawed off.

The significance of this is that the mysterious package on Chuck’s island that he chooses not to open for hope belongs to the woman who lives on this ranch. It really doesn’t matter what was in the package, because Chuck held onto it to hold onto hope that he might one day just survive. Much like his hopes that he might one day reunite with Kelly. The film isn’t just a metaphor of Chuck’s symbolic divorce, but of a death as well. The first act of the film represents the five stages of grief Chuck goes through until the symbolic passing of his past life.

There’s a visual motif that the film utilizes to represent Chuck’s metaphorical divorce. In the first act, we are introduced to one of our hero’s problems – an infected tooth. This tooth infection is almost always paired with another visual queue, technology.

Chuck’s tooth infection represents his pain over his separation from his lover. His job as a FedEx executive means he’s often away from her and has to rely on technology to keep in contact with her. This is represented a few times with a missed call on an answering machine, and when his pager calls him away from Kelly during a family dinner. In fact, the first time Chuck even see’s Kelly on screen they unite by dancing to a rhythm of a copy machine (Logos Made Flesh).

When Chuck leaves a message for the answering machine, he complains about his tooth. This happens again at the dinner when he takes a bite of some food and the pain comes back to haunt him when his pager calls.

Chuck’s relationship was doomed from the start, as his job only pulls him away from his wife. Technology promises to keep them together but in fact, it is the ONLY thing holding them together. When Chuck reaches the island, his watch Kelly gave to him stops, so does his relationship.


Denial

As he finally succumbs to the harsh reality of life, he goes into shock, looking around the island. He yells “HELLOOOOOO” searching for a single soul to have an excuse to distract himself from his heartbreak. However, he is indeed alone. Time, and his heart both stop at that moment.

As time progresses, his tooth infection becomes worse. When someone goes through grief, its not unreasonable to expect that they would keep holding onto their pain in the hopes that they will eventually be reunited with their lover or passed family member. I don’t know about you, but I can name a few times after a breakup that I would ignore my pain and do anything at all to cope with my heartbreak, much like Nancy’s example of using surfing as a coping mechanism for her mother’s death in The Shallows. For better context, you can check out my breakdown of The Shallows here: https://moviemonster.blog/2019/11/24/the-wasted-potential-of-the-shallows/

In fact, he actually see’s one of the pilots from his crashed plane, only to find a dead body. After he buries him he scavenges his belongings to find anything useful, only to find a dead man’s shoes and a flashlight. Even though his separation from Kelly is causing him pain, he can’t help but hold onto hope of reuniting with her, even in the dark (Logos Made Flesh). His love for her only blinds him to what he really needs, as he looks to technology, a device that once held his relationship together to solve his problems.

After Chuck tries to escape his island when he see’s a ship in the distance, the tide crushes him and a piece of coral tears his leg open. With his life raft now deflated and his spirit broken, he limps back to shore a broken man. He finally admits defeat as he falls asleep in a cave under the dying light of his flashlight. This cave becomes his tomb (Logos Made Flesh).


Anger

After his shock and denial have run its course, Chuck wakes up to start a new life and begin his trial. We see Chuck find some FedEx packages that were lost from the wreckage. As he opens them to find anything he can salvage, its no coincidence that one of the packages he opens is of course a dissolution of marriage. One of the other packages we see him open is the infamous Wilson volleyball that eventually becomes the contrast between his old and new life (Logos Made Flesh).

In this next stage of grief, a common coping mechanism is to resort to anger to rationalize what happened. In my personal experience I have found that in the case of breakups, I would end up telling myself that “she wasn’t a fit partner” or, “she’s a terrible person for what she did to me”.

In Castaway, you can see this in Chuck as he tries to create fire. In his suffering, he has to rely on himself to find purpose and happiness without Kelly. Of course in his weakened and inexperienced state he’s expected to fail miserably. He tries to create fire and in the process, cuts open his hand. In his rage he ends up picking up the volleyball and screaming into the lonely abyss.

When he goes to try again, Wilson is now brought into existence to spite and ridicule him. Once he starts to see smoke, he looks over to Wilson, and realizes that the smoke had dissipated. He screams out to him “The air got to it!”.

Wilson is literally created from Chuck’s anger and suffering as he etches a persona onto this ball from his own blood. Wilson becomes a materialization of Chuck’s past life coming to haunt him. He represents all of Chuck’s failures, insecurities, and his attachment to Kelly. Its not unreasonable to expect that Chuck would lash out to distract himself and ignore these insecurities. Its definitely much easier to cope with loss by resorting to anger rather than moving on.

This stage of his grief starts to meet its end when the pain from the loss of his beloved Kelly becomes so great, that he resorts to a terrible self procedure of cutting out his infected tooth with a Rollerblade to remove it. He’s finally realized that he’s not getting her back. When he passes out from trauma, the film fades and cuts 4 years later to a disheveled and broken Chuck complete with a beard.

There’s even a point in the film when Chuck is given an opportunity to escape again when a door to a porta-john washes ashore which he can use as a sail. As he “talks” to Wilson, he’s fighting with his own thoughts. In his own words:

…And what is your point? We might just make it, did that thought ever cross your brain? Well regardless I’d rather take my chance out there in the ocean than to stay here and die, on this shit-hole island, spending the rest of my life talking to a GOD-DAMN VOLLEYBALL!

Chuck Noland, Castaway (2000)

Chuck kicks Wilson out of the cave and then realizes what he’s done. Using personal experience, I’ve found that when I have thoughts of moving on, I end up feeling depressed and sad inside that I’d even think about moving on from someone I cared so much about. Chuck has the chance to let it all go, but instead chases after Wilson. The waves washed off part of Wilson’s face, so Chuck resorts to holding onto his broken hopes and ideals with his own blood as he restructures Wislon’s face. When they reunite at the beach Chuck cradles him and says “Never again, never again”. Chuck is still holding a death grip onto those false ideals that everything will be okay, that him and Kelly are meant to be together.

People tend to last a long time in this stage. Its hard to grow up and stop blaming others for fault when we may have had some part in the relationship’s failures. After all, in order to admit that you were wrong, you would have to admit that all of your other decisions were wrong.


Bargaining

Chuck doesn’t really spend much time in this stage. After all, many people don’t go through the stages of grief in order. However, there is one incredibly powerful scene that fits this stage perfectly.

Near the end when Chuck is rescued and reunited with Kelly, he is invited into her house. In the beginning of the film before Chuck left, he gave her a series of Christmas gifts leading up to a proposal ring. One of them being hand towels, Chuck remarks at them after giving her the ring box that they were a “joke”.

When he is invited back into her new home, something doesn’t feel right. Chuck is surrounded by pictures and home decor belonging to her new family. He’s in another man’s home. Just as a frog using the last semblance of his strength to escape a pelican’s throat, Chuck is still holding onto hope that him and Kelly can reunite even though he knows deep down that its not right. Kelly gives him some hand towels to dry himself off with.

After a couple minutes of small talk, Chuck says “I shouldn’t have ever left the car”.

The bargaining stage is a coping mechanism that acts as a way for the brain to rationalize and justify the pain or sadness. In Chuck’s case, its his last line of defense against his pain. The hand towels are a representation of what could have been. If only he never left the car, they would still be together, along with their towels.

The human brain will try its absolute hardest to prevent itself from becoming depressed. Eventually however it will lose its energy. Kind of like an angry person eventually becoming sympathetic when they don’t get the reaction they expected. Bargaining is the last fighting spirit the brain has in it before it gives up and opens the floodgates to depression. With Chuck however, it represented his final step into the journey to acceptance.


Depression

In one of the major turning points in the film, Chuck is given a sail when he finds a detached door to a porta-john on the shore and is eventually able to craft a raft to make one last attempt to escape the island. He painted the pair of wings that were on that one package he held onto for hope onto his sail. Little did he know that those wings would be a calling card to his escape from his island and an open door to his future.

After he succeeds and finds himself at the mercy of the sea, he meets a whale who accompanies him throughout his journey. This whale represents God watching over him as Chuck makes his way through his last few trials on his path to acceptance and enlightenment.

After a freak storm, his sail and his hope, are torn off of the raft into the raging wind. When he wakes up, Wilson falls off his raft. The whale, that has been following him along his journey, blows water onto him to wake him up. As we see Chuck frantically search for Wilson, he finds him and makes a break for it.

In his starved and weakened state Chuck finds himself physically unable to go after Wilson and save him. He has to choose over his chance of redeeming himself to live a self-fulfilling life, and going down a path of self destruction that is continuing to mourn and sit in his own sadness and self pity. When he realizes that he has to move on he returns to his raft, and we see a broken man sobbing over the loss of Wilson.

Wilson was the only thing, aside from perhaps Kelly and the mysterious package that kept his sanity intact. Using another film as an example, take Life of Pi. Yes, Richard Parker is indeed a living, breathing, tiger. However, the constant threat of being eaten gave Pi’s life purpose. The fear of being eaten kept his sanity intact without him even realizing. If Pi never had Richard Parker on his boat with him he likely would have succumbed to insanity and met a grim death by his own foolishness.

With Wilson, Chuck had something to project his thoughts onto. Although not human, he still had someone to rely on in his darkest hours. Although symbolically Wilson is a representation of Chuck’s past self it doesn’t change the fact that Chuck still has to let go. He became his best friend on that island. With his only source of companionship gone, he had to go the rest of his journey alone.

The act of moving on is hard. We all want to hold onto hope that one day things will magically be like they used to be. We all want to believe that if we just keep pursuing what we lost we will eventually get it back. There comes a point where we have to realize that not everything is meant to be. For Chuck, this just means accepting his loss for what it is and moving on.


Acceptance

Throughout the film, we see Chuck go through small victories that all help into his path into acceptance.

For example, after he succeeds in making fire to become more self-fulfilling, we see that his survival skills have gotten an upgrade. The dress that he found in one of the packages has now been turned into a net to catch fish more easily instead of chasing after them fruitlessly. We can see that this dress, a symbol of femininity and Kelly as a whole has now been re-purposed to fit his own needs. He’s now taking care of himself and learning to love himself. He’s becoming more of the man he needs to be. When he cuts his hand when trying to start a fire he even uses part of the dress as a bandage, signifying his maturity and his journey to self-fulfillment.

Another example is when he’s in the process of creating a raft, he has a small conversation with Wilson mocking his past life being so concerned with control, represented by his constant obsession with being on time. He says “let’s not commit the sin of turning our back on time” and then chuckles at the foolishness he see’s in his past. Being able to chuckle at your past decisions and make fun of your past self without feeling pain is a great sign of improvement. If you are wise enough to truly laugh at yourself, than that means that you are aware of your past foolishness. After all, we only truly laugh at people who are foolish and ignorant right?

However, Chuck’s final stage is truly represented in the 3rd act of the film. After he gets rescued he has a conversation on the airplane with Stan, his best friend. Stan says “Kelly had to let you go, we thought you were dead. We buried you.” When Chuck asked what was put in the coffin, Stan replied with “well we all put something in. An old cellphone, a pager, I threw in a few Elvis CD’s”. This is a reflection on Chuck’s enlightenment from his time on the island. That coffin, and Wilson, represent his past life and his abandonment of his toxic ideology that technology was the key to holding his relationship together, and that this said relationship was the key to his happiness. Only this time, Chuck is fully aware of this connection and is forming his new life.

Back when he was on the island, Chuck had to feel pain to create fire and craft the tools needed to hunt and survive. It took a lot of hard work and self-discipline to change as a person. When he is rescued, he is given a surprise party of sorts. When everyone leaves Stan tells him “we are going to bring you back to life” and he is left alone to think and ponder in his thoughts. He walks around the room surrounded by the food he had to work so hard for to obtain. He then finds a lighter sitting on one of the tables and turns it on. I love this scene so much because it reflects on Chuck’s journey to self love and self fulfillment. He no longer has to feel pain to get what he wants, or rather what he needs because he is much stronger as an individual now. Now that he is enlightened he doesn’t need to feel pain to create fire.

Afterwards, we find him in a hotel room trying to recreate his cave on his island. He lays on the floor flicking the light on and off looking at his watch Kelly gave him, just as he did with his flashlight. He knows deep down that he has to let her go, but he’s not ready to accept it yet because he loves her so much. The lamp he flicked on and off is a representation of his new knowledge of his failed ideologies of relationships and his dependency on Kelly.

One last scene I’d like to mention before we wrap up is his talk with Stan after his final confrontation with Kelly. In this talk, he enters a long monologue where these final thoughts are spoken:

…The only thing I could control, was when, how, and where that was going to happen. So, I made a rope. I went up to the summit to hang myself. I had to test it, of course, you know me. 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. And 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….I know what I have to do know. I gotta keep breathing, because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

Chuck Noland, Castaway (2000)

In the final scene of the film, after this monologue, Chuck finds himself at the ranch that sent him that mysterious package that he has kept all this time. We see that Dick has been removed from the sign, and that only Bettina remains. He even meets the infamous Bettina on his way back down the road. After he leaves the package by the door he finds himself at a crossroads where he can go any which way he wants, and he looks down the road leading to Bettina’s home. Now because he knows what he needs, that he can go down any path he see’s in life, he isn’t tied down by anything. There’s no reason feel the need to control everything in life. Once you take a moment to just appreciate what you have, you can go whichever way you want.

Author

Noah Veremis


Works Cited

  1. Miller, Matthew S. Who is Wilson: Castaway and Time Travel. YouTube, Logos Made Flesh, May 29th, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DNNHO6U40M .

Published by Noah Veremis

I love movies.

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