All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford’s tour de force as a man lost at sea makes us realise what has been missing from single-character movies.

all-is-lostUSA
4.5*

Director:
J.C. Chandor

Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank G. DeMarco

Running time: 105 minutes

It’s not easy to carry a film all on your own. Philip Baker Hall did it as a ranting Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a film that unfortunately wasn’t as compelling as director Robert Altman’s other chamber film, the ensemble-driven Streamers, and to some extent Ryan Reynolds (with the help of voices on the other end of a phone line) pulled it off in the disturbing Buried.

All is Lost puts all previous lone-character efforts to shame (most notably, Tom Hanks’ talkative island man in Cast Away), as the film’s main and only character does not even have a name, and the director doesn’t take the easy way out by having him speak to himself. Played by Robert Redford, “Our Man” has a full three lines of dialogue, of which half consist only of the odd four-letter word to explain his frustration with the situation or vocalise the realisation that this may be the end.

The situation is the following: Having navigated his yacht to a point on the Indian Ocean far away from any civilization – and most significantly, 1,700 miles from the seaway all cargo ships use to transport their goods across the vast body of water – he wakes up to discover his yacht, the Virginia Jean, is taking in water. While he was asleep on the calm seas, a container filled with tiny shoes had fallen off a cargo ship, bobbed on the waves and eventually struck his boat. Fortunately, for the most part, the hole can be repaired; unfortunately, it’s not going to be calm seas all the time, and plain sailing is out of the question.

The film is about survival on open waters as much as Gravity is about survival in outer space. In both films, there is no one to help you when you need it most, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what to do and how quickly to do it, because time – or oxygen, or fresh water – is running out.

Being a seaman means being creative and prepared for anything. When you are exposed to the elements, with only yourself and a tiny boat standing between life and death, a situation can turn extremely challenging if you don’t know how to deal with potentially disastrous turns of events. You can never completely relax.

That is what Redford’s character here learns very quickly. And even though we know nothing about him – not his name, nor how long he has been on the water, nor anything about his family history – we feel entirely sympathetic towards his predicament. We can see he is doing his best, and he clearly has spent some time on the water during his lifetime, but still, the fear is always there that nature will wreak too much havoc for him to handle.

Every time we hear thunder rolling, our stomachs start to churn, and for most of the second half of the film, the tension is nearly unbearable. It is the result of many different factors that include the sharpening of our senses, because there is never any dialogue to distract us from the action; the potential that the lead character will drown; and the uncertainty of how long this ordeal will last before the sun breaks through and the enormous waves subside.

We have not seen this kind of action at sea since The Perfect Storm, and although a few shots of Redford at the helm taken in the midst of a storm don’t look entirely realistic, the rest of the production comes across flawlessly, at least in its visual presentation. I am no seaman, so I can’t judge how accurate or suitable the character’s actions are and whether they in any way made the situation better or worse. But Redford’s depiction of a man whose demeanour changes from calm, controlled and determined to dehydrated, exhausted and slightly delirious is a truly compelling job of acting, and he deserves great credit for steering the film in the right direction.

The film is only the second by director J.C. Chandor, whose 2011 début Margin Call also took place in a limited time and place: over a period of 24 hours in an investment bank, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

All is Lost has a perfectly ambiguous ending, and although one can quibble about the need for an opening voice-over that attempts to frame the film in terms of suspense rather than surprise (as if the title didn’t suffice), it is a breath-taking work of fiction that shows what single-character dramas should look like.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013