What is it like to be truly alone in a film?
Would it bore or terrify you?
Robert Redford, in his usual fashion, gives one of the most understated and powerful performances of his lifetime in the film All is Lost, written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Because this film is a bit unconventional, I will not break my review down into specific strong and weak points as I usually do.
This is, without a doubt, the best film that I’ve seen this year. It is minimalism at its best. Not since Sean Penn’s Into the Wild have I seen a film utilize the inherent silence of nature so well. All is Lost is bold and subtle, but powerful. What you learn from watching a “disaster movie” as lucid and quiet as this one is that what you see on screen is just as important is what you project as an audience member. It’s not unlike being in grade school and having your teacher present you with an unusual object and asking how many words you can use to describe it without knowing what it is. Redford, as a matter of fact, is the only character in the film. As such, he doesn’t even have a name — in the film’s credits, he is identified as “Our Man” — a choice that, in itself could be explicated for days.
The only time we hear Our Man speak is during the film’s opening when he narrates a letter of apology and goodbye to who we presume are his loved ones (his character does wear a wedding ring), possibly family, as the camera pans slowly over an unspecified metal cargo container floating in the water surrounded by children’s sneakers — something that looks as out of place as we do in the vast ocean. As viewers, we know that something bad must have happened, some freak accident in the middle of the seemingly bucolic Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Madagascar. After this scene, we are transported backward in time to a week before the accident took place.
What we learn in his first moments onscreen is that Our Man, in his seventies, is an experienced yachtsman taking his beautiful boat, likely the fruit of his decades of labor, out for a memorable journey. We find ourselves hunting for clues about this man – some things are more clear than others — he is American, presumably wealthy, and experienced on the water. To watch Redford move about his boat is to watch a skilled emergency room doctor triage a cardiac patient with an unwavering air of poised confidence. He looks the part, as well – his weathered skin speaks of years spent out in the elements. Still, Redford is regal as Our Man, he is masculine in a way that is rarely seen these days, both on screen or in real life. A pencil-pushing Wall Street geek by day, he surely is not.
After we watch his boat collide with this huge, unseemly object in the middle of the ocean, the film becomes all about this man versus the elements. On a grander scale, it is, of course, about a personal test. The lack of dialogue in this film allows for greater concentration on Our Man’s actions. He is calm and resourceful but never vacant.
When the crash punctures a hole in his boat, he harnesses himself to the side of the vessel and patches it. When he stands on the bow of his damaged ship and looks into the foreboding distance and sees a brewing storm — a vision that could have easily been taken from A Perfect Storm — he prepares himself and his boat by donning waterproof gear, covering the top of the sailboat with a tarp, and climbing the mast to adjust the sails. Surprisingly, he also shaves, prepares dinner, and does his dishes. Later, after his boat turns upside down and throws Our Man against a metal pole, leaving him with a gash on his head, he still calmly applies ointment and a bandage to it.
It is during scenes like this that I actually felt a heaviness in my chest. Watching Our Man remain stoic and simply deal with whatever nature throws at him is reminiscent of a vanishing generation — one with slightly more common sense and less self-pity. Instead of fumbling for an iPhone when his radio fails, he instead takes the entire thing apart to allow it to air dry and turns to a brand new, unused mariner’s sextant, maps, and a copy of Celestial Navigation for Yachstman. As his yacht sinks, he watches it disappear beneath the water from his lifeboat with the resignation of an elderly person watching their car being taken away.
Although Redford is an older man, his character never begs for sympathy from viewers, even as his physical state declines throughout the course of the film. As his luck goes from bad to worse, we keep expecting Our Man to give up. We watch with with an incredulous stare as gigantic commercial cargo ships pass by Our Man and his tiny S.O.S. signals, steaming ahead towards their location, so large and lifeless that they are almost robotic.
There is a clear parable at work here, one that emerges in certain scenes and finally culminates in the film’s closing. Nothing quite reveals the minutia of man than the image of a tiny boat adrift in the ocean. It’s no surprise that the very class of object that caused the initial wound in Our Man’s yacht — commercial shipping container — is of the same that fails to recognize his calls for help. More precisely, it is his own yacht that turns against him — perhaps a symbol of wealth that ultimately turned out to be Our Man’s Achilles Heel. Ultimately, it is his own resourcefulness that allows him to survive on the water, but it is in a final act of desperation that his story nearly turns fatal.
All is Lost is an example of smart filmmaking. It is almost like a stage play set on the water. The imagery is subtle and Redford’s performance is outstanding.