All is Lost (United States, 2013)October 24, 2013
Over a career that has spanned more than a half-century, Robert Redford has played his share of interesting and well-remembered roles, from The Sundance Kid (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) to Bob Woodward (All the President's Men) to Roy Hobbs (The Natural) to Tom Booker (The Horse Whisperer). It's safe to say he has never portrayed a character quite like the unnamed protagonist of All is Lost. With no co-stars to play off, Redford is figuratively and literally adrift in unknown territory. The premise is simple enough: a man, alone and floating in the Indian Ocean with no working radio equipment and no obvious means of rescue, must struggle to survive or give in to negativity and perish. The challenge lies in executing this effectively and making it compelling for audiences.
Director J.C. Chandor (the writer/director of the underrated Wall Street thriller Margin Call) makes this all about Redford. The character has no name. He has virtually no backstory or biography. The film begins when his yacht has a bizarre accident in the middle of the ocean and continues from there. The ending can be viewed as ambiguous. Depending on whether you're inclined toward a strictly concrete interpretation or are looking at something more symbolic, the final moments lead in diametrically opposite directions. As a survival tale, this one can be placed alongside movies like Cast Away, 127 Hours, and Gravity, all of which postulate the struggles of a human being placed alone in an extreme survival situation.
There's one critical difference. Tom Hanks had Wilson. Sandra Bullock had George Clooney. Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma had Richard Parker the tiger. Redford has no one. He speaks rarely, with most of his words coming in a voiceover at the beginning. Without dialogue or other actors, the weight of the entire movie falls upon his facial expressions and body language. Once thought to be among the most handsome actors, Redford has aged well. At 77, he's no longer a sex object, but his craggy, weathered visage is perfect for this sort of part and he can still hold a close-up.
All is Lost is about how human nature rebels against death, even when all hope is vanquished by adverse circumstances. Dylan Thomas would have approved: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light!" At first, when Redford's character is awakened by the sound of an impact followed by water gushing through a hole in the prow of his schooner, his approach his businesslike, his demeanor calm. Even when he realizes his electronic equipment is kaput, he still takes matters in stride. Then the storm hits. This harrowing sequence, which takes up about a quarter of the movie's running length, proves to be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for the lone mariner. Instead of making long-term plans, he focuses only on the moment. Living for another hour becomes a goal worthy of pursuit. He has all the usual problems: food, water, exposure. But the biggest danger is giving into despair and, as things grow worse and a second storm looms on the horizon, despair seems a reasonable alternative. Yet, even as the last light of hope dims and Redford's face falls, he doesn't give up.
One of the producers called All is Lost an "existential action movie," but it arguably has more in common with TV shows like Surivorman than what is normally associated with "existential." The film is unusual not so much because of its content - the man vs. nature story has always been a popular one, whether in print or on film - but in its restraint. Putting an actor, even an accomplished one such as Redford, alone on screen for more than 90 minutes is a risk. But Chandor's screenplay has just enough variation to keep things lively, and Redford's assured performance keeps viewers concerned about his fate. Ultimately, that's the key: if you don't care about whether the character lives or dies, there's no purpose staying in the theater. And, because Redford plays the part with such commitment, it's hard to lose interest even when Chandor gets all artsy with beautifully framed underwater shots of fish schools.
All is Lost (United States, 2013)
Cast: Robert Redford
Screenplay: J.C. Chandor
Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco, Peter Zuccarini
Music: Alex Ebert
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions