By Linc Leifeste | December 16, 2013
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Who knew that spending an hour and 45 minutes watching Robert Redford lost alone at sea could be such an enthralling, captivating and emotionally draining experience? I’ll admit, I had several years ago come to the conclusion that Redford’s best work was long behind him, that all he had left in him was occasionally directing and acting in painfully earnest misfires like Lions for Lambs. Of course Redford wasn’t in the director’s chair this time around and there’s little reason to doubt that J.C. Chandor’s direction and writing is key to the stunning success of All Is Lost. But don’t doubt for a minute that this is just as much Redford’s film as Chandor’s. I don’t think there are many actors out there who could have delivered the performance that Redford did or had me feeling so fully emotionally invested in this character’s fate.
There’s not a lot of plot recap to bother with in discussing All Is Lost. Redford plays an unnamed sailor, clearly a man of means and a man of ability, lost at sea. We’re not sure what he’s doing out there and it doesn’t really matter. The film opens with him narrating a final apologetic letter he’s written for his family as the end nears, before jumping back to eight days earlier, just as catastrophe strikes in the form of a shipping trailer that punches a hole in the side of his boat as he’s sleeping. Other than an attempted mayday message on a radio that he momentarily hopes might be working, a couple of despairing expletives, and a few mumbled words, the opening narration is all we hear of Redford’s voice.
But Redford shines in a role where less is more, where he’s seen and not heard, the film and his character stoically stripped of everything superfluous to survival. After the disaster, our yachtsman is methodical, reserved and efficient. He works to free his boat from its binding dance with the shipping container, works to patch the hole as best he can, pumps out the water that has flooded his ship, dries his possessions and carries on about the business of survival. But with his means of communication destroyed, his ability to steer his ship gone, he’s forced to rely on age-old techniques to try to guide his ship, which is still taking on water, to safe harbor. No easy task but one he performs admirably.
There are the requisite dangers of the sea; a horrendous storm gives him a pounding as our sailor is tossed and turned in his claustrophobic quarters, leaving the viewer feeling just as effectively battered, sharks circle and threaten, but these elements are not used for cheap thrill. They’re just small parts of a greater existential threat that constantly looms throughout the entire film. And at the center of it all is Redford, a charismatic and masculine star stripped of all artifice and fame. Yes, there are messages to be found here, about changing times, Redford standing in as representative of the last of a dying breed of male movie star, all physicality and with no airs, no sentimentality. And about the ills of capitalism, with his ship undone by a piece of floating trash, a shipping container filled with cheap childrens’ shoes. It’s no coincidence that Redford, in the end, on his life raft, barely clinging to life with failing strength, flare in hand, looks so small and inconsequential as he tries to wave down a passing cargo ship, giant, metallic and uncaring.
But ultimately, what this film ably captures is the precariousness of life itself and the beauty of the struggle. And popping up randomly amidst the bleak despair and bone-crushing fatigue of the daunting struggle are moments of soul-lifting natural beauty, brief flashes of hope and ultimately the release of that last breath exhaled after exhausting every energy in fighting the good fight. If the film has a flaw, it comes in its closing moments, where I found it to flirt with cruelty before throwing the audience a bone. But then maybe it does neither, leaving the fate of our good sailor up to the interpretation of the viewer.