By: Daniel Reynolds
All is Lost is a film. It is written and directed by J.C. Chandor. It stars Robert Redford. The lead character is listed in the credits as “Our Man”. The first image of the film is of a drifting shipping container. Our man is on a boat that is struck by this wayward container. The entire film takes place in the middle of the Indian ocean. Our man wants to survive. This is what we know. This is all we ever really know. This is more than enough.
It is a tricky thing to make a film built around a solo performance. A qualification: by solo performance I don’t mean strong central display, or dominate starring role. What I’m talking about here is a solo performance in the truest sense. All is Lost deals with a situation of true film isolation in the rarest of structures; in this case, a solitary man adrift in nature. The film regards the aging visage of Redford as he looks about his boat, and the surrounding ocean, and tries to survive. Now, movies about man’s will to live are nothing new (the recent Gravity, with its largely Sandra Bullock focused narrative, is proof of that), but rarely does one attempt to illuminate so much by employing so very little.
For Chandor, drawn as he was to the elemental idea of one man settling his accounts in the face of death, the challenge of All is Lost is an equally significant struggle: man versus boredom. Chandor’s first movie, the timely Margin Call, was filled with a lively cast of actors (everyone from Aasif Mandvi to Demi Moore), stalking around downtown NYC offices, spouting a jargon heavy script that attempted to understand the recent financial crisis. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Margin Call is also, you guessed it, everything that All is Lost is not. Chandor has, rather astoundingly, striped all of that fussiness away. Working with an almost dialogue free script and two unheralded cinematographers (Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini), Chandor has crafted a beautiful, spare film that creates its suspense from small details and ingenious bits of plot problem solving. We see our man dutifully patching his boat, studying charts, desalinating drinking water, attempting to fish – as storms brew on the horizon, these are moments of urgency. Aided greatly by a mournful whale song score that rises and falls with the currents of the film, All is Lost overcomes the tedium of its onscreen actions by surrounding them in the broadest space. Somehow, the film has both everything at stake – our man’s life – and nothing to anchor itself to. That the uniqueness of this set up actually works is a testament to Chandor, his crew and his lead actor. And it is clear that in casting Redford, Chandor found his movie.
It is a surprise to see Redford now, at 77 (wow, really?), in such a demanding role. Let’s face it, for the last decade plus Redford has been coasting. His legacy is already firmly cemented as both one of the biggest movie stars of the 60s and 70s AND as the founder of the Sundance film institute. However, Redford has also been known as something of a manager; he has always been a careful defender of his image and place in the movie star system. To read, for example, William Goldman discuss Redford in his book is to discover a man very much dedicated to his sense of self and identity. Quite frankly, Redford doesn’t need to make a movie that runs him ragged in an empty expanse of ocean.
And yet, as our man, Redford is, for lack of a better word, a revelation. Stripped of glamour, of elaborate sets, of dialogue, of romance, there is a performance, underlined. It is Redford that draws us into this struggle of man versus nature. We feel sympathy, we are moved. We find ourselves clutching at our seats as our man hangs on during a storm. We cheer as his thoughtful plans come together, and groan inwardly as they fall apart. Just as Eastwood, or Bronson, or McQueen are types, so too is Redford. If this were to be his last film, well, then All is Lost would conclude the most definitively pure Redford statement. He is our man, indeed.
In thinking about the film, my mind kept circling back to the opening scene after the shipping container had struck our man’s ship. In his first bit of problem solving, he must figure out a way to pull the two vessels apart. So, our man attaches his anchor to the container, creates some separation, and then seems set to sail away, albeit with a new hole in his boat. But then, he turns back. He swings the boat around – taking on some additional water – and retrieves the dead weight. He can’t let it go. On the one hand, our man is being resourceful, not letting any potential supplies go to waste. But on the other hand…
Maybe I’m reading too much into that moment but it kept me thinking. Who is this man? Why is he in a boat by himself miles away from land, from people? An opening voice over – the only talkative moment in the movie – suggests a connection to family, to some loved ones, to some source of… unrest? Disappointment? Failure? Those opening lines create a ticking clock, they are written in past tense and make mention of having tried. Eventually, our man relies on a sextant to navigate and we see the box and card it came with. Was it a gift? If so, from whom? For all these questions, the film does not answer either way. Chandor resists the urge to sentimentalize his story. There is no Wilson here, or emotional flashbacks. We see no land. And never mind a tiger. I repeat: it is just Redford and the ocean. At one point when he shouts, “I’m here!”, it feels almost like a rebuke. It is our man verifying his own existence. He is there. He knows, and now we know.