With the release of A Hijacking, Captain Philips and Gravity, 2013 has been a banner year for movies about men (and women) in peril at sea (or in space). The latest of these terrific survival pictures is All Is Lost, a film with almost no spoken lines and just a single, nameless character. Robert Redford stars as an experienced sailor alone on the Indian Ocean, trying to save his small, damaged ship and his own life. Of this recent batch of movies that explore endurance under extreme conditions, All Is Lost is certainly the purest, in the sense that there's no dialogue or overt symbolic imagery to tell us what we're supposed to think. That's not to say that the film is devoid of subtext, but writer/director J.C. Chandor is content to leave us alone with the character so we can draw our own conclusions as we watch his fate play out. This is only Chandor’s second feature. His first, 2011’s excellent Margin Call, is a dialogue-heavy ensemble picture set inside the ultra-modern skyscrapers of New York City’s high-tech financial sector. But despite their sweeping differences of style and setting, both of Chandor's films explore how men act in the face of imminent disaster, and both are compelling without being sensationalistic.
The key ingredient to the film’s success is the casting of its single character. Redford is a unique figure in cinema history. He is old enough to be part of the Hollywood studio system’s “golden age” but he also played significant roles in both major American independent film movements: first as a leading star of the 1970s auteur period, and then as the founder of the Sundance Institute and Film Festival in the art-house era of the 1990s. He made an impressive directorial début in 1980 with Ordinary People, but directed only seven more films in the next thirty years, each one more forgettable than its predecessor, until he made last year's political thriller The Company You Keep and proved there was still some life left in his career behind the camera. While Redford is arguably most famous for his on-screen pairings with Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), Dustin Hoffman (All the President’s Men), Barbara Streisand (The Way We Were) and Merle Streep (Out of Africa), he is an introverted actor who is at his best playing misanthropic characters and not sharing the screen with anyone (as in The Natural, The Candidate, and, most especially, Jeremiah Johnson). In All Is Lost he is literally alone on screen, lacking even an anthropomorphized prop like Tom Hanks's volleyball in Castaway, or Bruce Dern's robots in Silent Running, and I don’t think there's an actor alive or dead better suited to this material than Redford. He is perhaps the most physically attractive 77-year-old man in the entire history of aging, which negates any sense that All Is Lost is about an “everyman.” However, this is also not a fantasy story about a superhuman either. Watching Redford’s character go about the business of saving his ship in the matter-of-fact way he attempts, places the audience at a fascinating emotional vantage point. We are not meant to identify completely with him as we do with Sandra Bullock in Gravity or Pilou Asbæk in A Hijacking, but neither do will live vicariously through him as we might with a larger-than-life persona: a James Bond or MacGyver of the sea. We feel trapped on the boat with Redford and, unless we are sailors ourselves, we lack the specific knowledge to understand much of what he’s doing from moment to moment. Thus we are uniquely invested in his predicament and its outcome, and we constantly attempt to comprehend his actions and gain insight into the man.
The key to the film's meaning can be found, I think, in the letter the man writes as he realizes the direness of his predicament. These are essentially the only words in the movie, spoken at the very beginning. Chandor’s decision to open the film with Redford reading this letter in voice-over is bold as it risks diminishing the power of the otherwise near-wordless picture. However, I think this choice adds depth and dimension to the movie. Just as in Jeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack's 1972 neo-Western, the most fascinating aspect of the Redford character is his unknown past.
Justin Nappi, Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, and Teddy Schwarzman
18 October 2013
Color / 2.35 : 1
Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini
18 October 2013
2.35 : 1