Deep into a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, a sailor (Robert Redford) wakes to find his yacht is leaking after a collision with an abandoned shipping container. With his navigation equipment and radio disabled, the man sails unknowingly into the path of a violent storm. As one catastrophe follws another, the man finds himself staring his mortality in the face. An extraordinary tale of survival from writer/director J.C. Chandor.
A survival epic pitting man against the Indian Ocean, All Is Lost, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, relies heavily on what Hitchcock called pure cinema, a form of storytelling that foregrounds what film can do, making a sort of narrator of the camera. Writer and director J.C. Chandor follows his well-received debut, Margin Call, an ensemble piece about the 2008 economic crisis, with a film that has almost no dialogue, no plot, and one very singular cast member.
"He is, it would seem, a better man than most."
That would be Robert Redford, named as 'Our Man' in the credits. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Redford replied to a question about why he doesn’t appear in the kind of independent production he champions by complaining that no one asked him to. The timing was right for both men, though I had to wonder if the grueling All Is Lost didn’t drain completely whatever stores of energy and good will Redford had built up for a rainy day indie project.
Following a brief prologue, in which Redford narrates the farewell note we later watch him write, after a week lost at sea ('All is lost here, except for soul and body and a half day’s ration"), All Is Lost begins with a breach. Redford is dozing in the lower deck of his sleek sailboat when it strikes an errant shipping container filled with cheap sneakers. The ship begins to hemorrhage, but Redford acts quickly, executing a series of tricky maneuvers to free and then right his boat. He wears a wedding band and is dressed like a vacationing Kennedy. He utters not even the whisper of a curse as his ship fills with ocean water. He is, it would seem, a better man than most.
'Behaviour is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald once exhorted himself. Novelists bear reminding of Fitzgerald’s credo more than filmmakers, who must remain vigilantly aware of their characters’ every powerfully visual move and flicker. Redford’s behaviour is all we have in All Is Lost, which makes the choice to keep him self-contained and impassive for such long stretches a little disappointing. Redford is the kind of movie star at his best when others are reacting to him – his beauty, his stature, that blond forelock that begs for smoothing. All Is Lost calls for his character to be in a constant state of reaction, and his methodical detachment, through crisis after battering crisis, leaves little for the viewer to hold onto. The story didn’t need a volleyball or a CGI tiger, but its brand of faithful realism feels overextended at times. Certainly to those of us who spend the better part of even non-shipwrecked days talking to ourselves.
Some of Redford’s decisions make sense or appear ingenious, others are less clear. The image of an affluent American lost at sea, where one by one all his yuppie adventurer gadgets fail him, and every barrier he places between himself and the world is torn away, grows heavy with symbolism. About halfway through the film, when Redford’s chances appear bleak, a score emerges from the previous silence, building an elegiac mood.
Redford, just turned 77, is tossed about like a meatball throughout the film, and it’s hard to watch. His vigorous physicality makes his fight to survive and eventual desperation more deeply felt. Signs of other human life are bluntly, massively alienating: Chandor makes a Maersk cargo freighter appear more menacing than any battleship, or even the sharks that begin to circle Redford’s lifeboat. Nature, it would appear, wants it all back. Fans of Our Man especially, our Golden Boy, will have a stake in whether all is really lost, or if we might keep him for another day.
Watch 'All Is Lost'
Friday 27 November, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford