All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This elegant piece of pure cinema consists of just one thing: a man, on his own, attempting to survive a disaster. He’s on a small boat traveling in the Indian Ocean thousands of miles from anywhere, and his hull’s been breached by a floating object, leading to flooding and treachery when the next storm comes. He has but one line of dialogue (aside from some brief narration), which he has to deliver twice because his throat is too dry initially to speak. He’s unnamed because his name doesn’t matter. In the credits, he’s listed as “Our Man,” which is apt because we as the audience share such a distinctive relationship with him — unless we know his situation well, he is our entire measure of his own success or failure, his life or death. We get every shade of the human reaction to this state, to this man’s specific reaction, which comes to make sense because of how much we come to know him: the rugged optimism, the invention, the frustration, the boredom, the hopelessness.

You may rightfully think of lots of other movies tangentially and closely related, from Lifeboat to Cast Away, with Deliverance in the back of your head. There are no dangerous human enemies here, sure, but as in Deliverance, we have a cocky hero inhabiting the macho belief that being in control of all things is paramount, nature included. Attractive as solitude may be, what makes him believe he on his own can navigate the formidable sea? Like Our Man, we have plenty of time to be haunted by questions like these, especially since the film begins with his own apology for placing too much faith in himself. The constant influx of water and humiliating setbacks knocks down his ego before, during and after it starts to threaten his life.

Nevertheless, for the most part our sympathies are consistently with him, to the point that we feel as much like participants as most of us did with Sandra Bullock in Gravity. While he obviously is an amateur, he has genuine expertise about and respect for the ocean, however much he may overestimate his command of it. He’s believably a loner doing what he loves, and while much has been made of his blank slate characterization, we actually have nearly as much information about him as we did about Bullock (sans excessive expository dialogue) and Dennis Weaver in Duel (sans voiceover): we see the wedding ring, we see him resist opening a greeting card, we hear the vague allusions to interpersonal inadequacy at the beginning of the film. We also see that he has much to live for, and the film is about his determination.

The lead in All Is Lost didn’t need to be a movie star. It needed to be a great actor and, more than anything, someone who could keep an audience in his corner even in moments when the majority of viewers won’t immediately know exactly what the seasoned hobbyist is doing — plugging this hole here, using a lifeboat as a satellite there, fusing contraptions and creating well-intentioned mishaps with his busy hands everywhere. Robert Redford does not seem immediately like an obvious choice. He’s a good actor and director who’s occasionally given great performances (All the President’s Men was probably his best prior to this), but writer-director J.C. Chandor initially seems to have taken a leap of faith here.

Then you realize: what this film requires is a reassuring face, someone we believe knows what he’s doing even when he might not, someone who indicates confidence and (some degree of) warmth, even when hanging by a thread or towering terrifyingly far above his boat daring us to expect him not to fall. Who better, really, to embody this than the man who early in his career portrayed Death itself as a friendly, hunky escort to the great beyond in the Twilight Zone episode “Nothing in the Dark”? Redford is magnificent — it’s a perfect, minimalistic performance — and he’s great for the film because when he starts to lose his grip and turn to despair, we know that we’re in trouble. I’m not sure he’s ever been this good before, and his performance is a master class in negative acting. With essentially nothing — no living thing, at least — to play against, and only the terrible loneliness of a seemingly inevitable death held as a secret between the self and the earth, he generates pathos, humor, humanity. All in the eyes, the clenching of the teeth, the body language.

This was a wonderful theatrical experience. A balcony stuffed with people sat captivated by what amounts to a silent film (and not one about the fact that it’s silent) — in other words, a harrowing work of true visual storytelling. Perhaps it protracts its ending a bit, but the ambiguity (possible religious redemption, possible sheer impressionistic expression of a calm death a la 2001, possible Children of Men-like open-ended rescue) seems in a sense like the only acceptable conclusion. Chandor proves himself an expert at letting go of just enough to make us winded and elated by the time we walk out. Between this, Captain Phillips and Gravity, 2013 was the year of movies generating an almost physical response of exhaustion and relief, something I believe is relatively new in mainstream cinema.

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