Two minutes off from being a bonafide masterpiece.
All Is Lost
All is Lost reveals the true essence of who Robert Redford is as an actor as much as any other film in his career, which spans over half a century. It’s a story of survival at sea, stripped bare, down to the bone: One man. One boat. One ocean. One question: In the end, when all is lost, is life worth fighting for?
The film opens with a voice-over by Redford, in which he confesses he “fought to the end,” but doesn’t know what that’s worth (we’re given no backstory on Redford’s nameless character, because we don’t need it). We then flash back to the beginning of his sea-faring woes; a freshly-punched hole in the side of his boat, caused by a giant crate full of sneakers that’s fallen off the back of a much bigger boat. He keeps his composure as he assesses the damage, and quickly begins patching up his humble home on the water.
His problems accumulate: his fresh water supply gets contaminated, he’s running out of food, the crushing weather continues to batter the boat, and his radio’s been shorted out. The seriousness of his situation slowly whittles away at his once cool composure, and we watch helplessly as what’s left of his fighting spirit is exhausted. Why does he continue to fight?
You’ll ask yourself that question over and over again as we watch his situation become more desperate. That’s because writer-director J.C. Chandor gives you no other choice; he doesn’t cloud his story with traditional devices like plot, exposition, and dialogue. As the pounding elements punishes the sides of the boat and we hear the deep bellow of an approaching storm cloud in the distance, we’re constantly reminded of the bitter inevitability that nature will devour him (and us). Yet still, even with death at his doorstep, Redford fights for his life. But why? Surely it would be easier for him to give in accept his fate. The question swirls around in your brain throughout the entire 107-minute length of the film, growing more potent, powerful, and moving as it sinks in.
Chandor pushes Redford’s skills to the limit, giving him no crutches to lean on. He’s given only three (short) lines of dialogue to work with. His character has virtually zero backstory, operates in a tiny, isolated space, and has no other characters to interact with. He’s tightrope walking without a safety net, and he rises to the occasion like only a screen veteran could.
Redford’s forced to communicate emotions and ideas to us with the most primitive of tools; his face and his body. He’s the perfect “old man at sea”; as the boat creaks, so do his joints. He scrunches his weathered face and furrows his brow as he labors to keep his boat from falling apart. We see him rub the skin his hands raw as he operates a manual water pump for hours. His eyes glimmer with hope when an idea strikes him, and when nature thwarts his schemes for survival, we see his spirit deflate as he slumps down in defeat. Chaplin and Keaton would be proud.
This is one of the best performances of Redford’s career. Look at this virtually silent, understated performance, and then look at his charming, verbose, bombastic turns in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, and you’ll see just how staggering his range is as an actor.
All is Lost is best viewed in the dark box of a movie theater, primarily due to the unbelievably immersive sound design. It’s amazing to watch Redford ‘s reactions to the swarm of creaks and bumps that surround him on the boat, which are positioned perfectly on the speakers. When we hear a loud bang, his eyes dart to exactly where we heard it. It really does cast a spell on you; as I watched him wade his way through the flooded cabin, a muffled thunderstorm raging outside, I caught myself shivering, even though it was perfectly warm in the theater.
The storytelling Chandor employs harkens back to directors like Vertov, Akerman, and Kubrick, who with their work made the bold assertation that the clash of image and sound is all you need to tell a story. Nothing more. He keeps his camera close to Redford at all times, so that we can identify with him on a deep level. When he’s exhausted, we’re exhausted. When he’s encouraged, so are we. I struggle to think of a film more cinematically immersive. What’s amazing is, this silent, almost experimental film is Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call, a dialogue-driven ensemble piece. Just as All is Lost is a testament to Redford’s range, it’s a testament to Chandor’s, as well.
The film’s conclusion is a disappointment and feels at odds with the message of the film. If you cut off the final two minutes, All is Lost would be a bonafide masterpiece. Still, it can’t undo the brilliance of everything that precedes it. This is a glorious piece of cinema that revels in the core values of silent film, a tale of man versus nature that speaks to the heart rather than the mind.