Though praise has been high, it’s not hard to see why All Is Lost has struggled to find a footing in the UK’s consciousness this festive season. After three solid weeks of rainstorms and flooding, the prospect of spending 100+ minutes in the company of one man as he gets cold and wet and miserable is hardly a heartening prospect. Certainly not when there’s the greetings-card fantasies of Walter Mitty or the jazz-fluting return of Ron Burgundy as alternatives. Or perhaps after the orbital cartwheels of Gravity and the grueling survivathon of the similarly sea-bound Captain Phillips we’ve just reached our limit on this one-against-the-world obsession of Hollywood’s?
It would be a shame if that was the case as although these movies are getting a tad repetitious, All Is Lost is hardly the least of them. Credited only as ‘Our Man’, Robert Redford is our one and only companion through this ride, a lone sailor who will, over 8 days, suffer bad weather and bad fortune in equal measure. Beaten down time and again, his near wordless battle against the elements is a testament to both the resilience and the frailty of the human spirit.
Delightfully, the film eschews back story or explanation for quite why he is sailing across the Indian Ocean without his family. These details we are left to ponder or make up for ourselves. Writer/Director J.C. Chandor favours a lean method of storytelling, allowing the audience to engage and pick up clues for themselves. Likewise, Chandor seems gratefully aware that watching someone perform necessary tasks can be interesting in itself. It may seem like an odd comparison, but in the early stretches of All Is Lost I was fondly reminded of No Country For Old Men‘s compulsive regard for practical actions. There’s an understated level of voyeurism coursing through this film. As ‘Our Man’ suffers his misfortunes we sit in the dark watching him.
And really he’s in trouble from the word go. Following a brief, enigmatic cold open (which features nearly all of the film’s dialogue) we flashback 8 days to the beginning of all this; Redford’s boat has collided with a stray shipping container in the night causing some inconvenient damage that leaves him adrift from the modern world. This serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, it allows us to learn his abilities at adapting to crisis and that he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and make the best of a bad situation. Secondly, it sets up a predicament which will only worsen when a storm hits.
And what a storm it is. CG enhanced it may be, still it’s difficult not to get swept up in the grand struggle that ‘Our Man’ finds himself in, either when huddled inside the shell of his cabin with the booming weather crashing outside, or during his death-defying ventures out into the wild winds to attempt futile acts of damage control. Chandor helms it all like a pro and All Is Lost is certain to get him noticed, certainly far more than his sole previous feature Margin Call.
With nobody else to support him a lot of work falls on Redford’s shoulders, making ‘Our Man’ something of an unusual role. With nobody to communicate with, the temptation surely must’ve been to have Redford externalise his anguish for the audience’s sake. Again Chandor resists, and so Redford’s ordeal is one of quiet frustration turning to mounting despair, all communicated through his resigned eyes. It may not immediately appear to be a showy performance (save for one crowd-pleasing outburst), but it is an impressive one, measured and realistic.
Having ‘Our Man’ be Redford when, really, any hot name in Hollywood could’ve manned this is a smart move. He’s earned a certain status in the public mind, a familiarity and regard which helps carry our favour. We almost root for him instinctively.
All Is Lost is not all storms and bluster, indeed quite what to do in the aftermath causes ‘Our Man’ greater predicaments than he is faced with during the deluge. Surviving on tattered ruins is no easy task, and misfortune hasn’t left him yet. There’s a feeling of “whatever next?”, casting him as a Job-like character. Chandor doesn’t push any religious overtones overtly, at least not until the very end, and even then the metaphor is there if you want to see it, easily bypassed if you don’t.
Gravity may well have stolen a lot of All Is Lost‘s thunder, and while it’s fair to say that this is less of a visual spectacle than Cuaron’s space merry-go-round, it is not without its moments. With barely a word spoken, Chandor’s camera has a lot to do and it does it all, making All Is Lost no small achievement. Still, there’s an unfortunate level of deja vu about this tale; we’ve seen elements of it before in various places. And while Chandor’s version deserves a lot of praise and respect for its rigorous plausibility, the film lacks a certain punch or element of surprise. Though never dull, the second half of the movie particularly feels like marked time until Our Man’s fate is decided.
Chandor’s leanness of storytelling should also have been extended to the score, which occasionally telegraphs our intended emotions a little too obtrusively. It’s a small matter, but a noticeable one.
So unlike parts of the Virginia Jean on which ‘Our Man’ sails, I was never completely blown away by All Is Lost. It engaged and impressed me throughout, yet left a strange sense of lacking. Difficult to quantify and hard to get back, this leaves the film as a definite success, and one worth your time, but also something of a curio instead of an all-time classic. Props to Redford though, who’ll be listening hard to hear if Oscar is calling his name this awards season.