All is Lost is a difficult, minimalist film with a fantastic central performance.
Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s marvellous All Is Lost, an existential tale of one man lost at sea. It reminded me particularly of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but it’s impossible to imagine it as anything but a film. The movie begins with approximately three-quarters of its dialogue, a short monologue from Redford’s character (listed in the credits as ‘Our Man’). Hope seems lost; he has only half a day’s rations remaining and seemingly no prospect of rescue. He tells his family he’s sorry – for what exactly? I don’t think it matters. We rewind eight days and our man wakes to find his boat gashed by a rogue shipping container. It’s a billion-to-one occurrence and indicative of an indifferent world, uninterested in the travails of men. What does our man’s fate matter? It’s unlikely he will ever be found.
Redford’s performance is spectacular. He’s always been a commanding screen presence and a thoughtful artist, but his performance in All Is Lost is something else entirely. There is something in his eyes – fear, maybe – making his character’s plight feel all too real. He mines depths that I had never seen in him before. However, his is a practical performance that serves the film well. There is probably more doing than there is acting, given the lack of dialogue, but that is exactly what the role requires. There is no outburst on the scale of Tom Hanks losing Wilson in Castaway, yet Redford’s eyes betray a sense of increasing desperation and resignation. I’d be surprised if Mr. Redford was not in the running for an Oscar come January.
The film is almost clinical in its narrowness of focus and, following 2011’s Margin Call, shows Chandor to have a fine eye for detail. Our man has no name, no background. A few details are revealed in the opening monologue, but the characterisation is otherwise spare. Perhaps that is the intention, though; he exhibits the courage and grim pragmatism under pressure that we would all like to possess.
Chandor records many a menial task: we watch him eat, sleep, bail out water, repair his boat and weather storms, all with the same realist gaze. The film’s minimalist sound design deserves particular praise; all creaking hulls, crashing waves and deep breaths. It puts us there, in the moment. The cinematography and editing is sound, the storms appropriately disorientating and Peter Zuccarini’s underwater photography provides some of the movie’s most lasting images.
It is fascinating, then, how deeply universal the film feels. The ending is powerful and, whilst not as overt as last year’s Life of Pi, will provoke debate due to its quasi-religious overtones. It is intensely experiential and deserves to be seen on the big screen. I’ve read dismissals of this film as an exercise in conceptual execution. Indeed, you might criticise Chandor for undertaking a project so different to his debut feature just to show that he can. However, I believe there is much more to the film. Redford’s contribution is immeasurable and quietly places All Is Lost among the best movies I have seen this year.