Cinematically speaking, there are few places more moving, more honestly heartbreaking than on the big screen with a lone character struggling to survive. To be lost, stranded in a desolate place is to provide a narrative hook that is immediately intimate and resoundingly relatable. As modern movies like “Cast Away,” “127 Hours,” and “Life of Pi” attest, there are many ways to approach such a tale, often with hand holding, flashy editing, and glittering CGI. There are audiences for all, but the version that I’ve personally longed for has finally arrived in J.C. Chandor’s perfect picture All Is Lost.
Opening on the water and remaining there for the entire 106 minute running time, Chandor’s movie is concerned with the constantly escalating plight of Robert Redford’s seasoned seafarer. Our unnamed protagonist (fittingly listed in the single credit cast list as “Our Man”) is all by himself on his sailboat somewhere in the midst of the Indian Ocean. And in a wise piece of character definition, Our Man is a guy of few words, tackling almost every situation with a wordless confidence and determination.
The decision to introduce Redford’s character in his element is a brilliant one that not only tightens the narrative structure instantly, but also allows us to meet the man on his terms. There are no distractions, no opportunities for a clumsy launch here. It’s just us and Our Man and the sea. Our role quickly becomes that of the observer who is left to admire and respect the stunning skill that Redford’s mariner possesses and applies to every obstacle he encounters.
Our initial introduction to life on the boat begins with water pouring through a large puncture hole caused by a random shipping container that destructively floated into Our Man’s path. Waking up in knee deep water doesn’t faze our protagonist, but rather sends him into action with almost enthusiastic focus. Up to the deck we go, where we watch as the dialogue-free scene unfolds with Redford smartly putting in motion a rescue effort that frees the boat from its corrugated metal captor. Thankfully, there is no voiceover present to walk us through the motions, no explanation given beyond what can be found in the poignant pleasure of Redford simply working.
This opening scene puts Our Man on another level in this experience, a teacher to our student, but it’s a level that he ascends to without pretension or any hint of artifice. He is so clearly in control of both the boat and his emotions, and Chandor is more than happy to let us just coexist with Our Man, while we watch him perform such important, quiet tasks as mixing the adhesive that he’ll then use to secure the patch for the hole in his boat. If the whole of All Is Lost was nothing but this, I’d be entranced.
Redford occupies every strand of waterlogged soul that his character can claim and carries himself with a convincing attitude that makes questioning his decisions seem an impossibility. It helps that Chandor’s script never insists that its hero become temporarily boneheaded to forward the plot. Every action, every methodical movement on the boat feels like the work of hands that have grasped this hunk of wood and metal for years, resulting in a character that is always believable and a performance that feels authentic right down to its salt-soaked bones.
All Is Lost is exquisite in its seeming simplicity, leaving us with a man who handles everything in soothing stride and would rather tackle every challenge in silence than give himself an encouraging exclamation along the way. I could easily spend a whole movie with Our Man just taking on the sea in fine conditions. He’s such an arresting figure and the opportunity to watch him indulge his passion without any impatient narrative devices clouding the experience is overwhelmingly exciting.
But the conflict keeps coming as the ocean is relentless in its attempts to keep Our Man on his toes. In a smoothly flowing testament to his talent, Chandor prevents the constantly worsening situation from becoming clunkyly episodic. He builds the danger with a natural progression and then unleashes the conflict with a fury that feels completely convincing specifically because Our Man is so prepared to handle it. When a storm rolls in, Redford goes through a scene where he keeps dipping below to retrieve one more piece of clothing or equipment that can further aid him in the battle against the elements. He does this wordlessly, of course, so we get to follow his actions in a manner that leaves room for suspense and surprise.
It is the storm sequence that then elevates All Is Lost beyond its already towering heights. Once the waves start crashing over the bow, what follows is the most immaculately and creatively engaging boat action I have ever seen on the big screen. Chandor lets the water absolutely attack us, putting us in a fascinating situation where we know to trust Our Man’s skills and instincts and yet also fear for his safety in the face of such a brutal beating. We have seen him erase any shred of doubt in his abilities, but the storm is just too formidable a villain to ignore.When Our Man decides it’s time to hide out below, we know that his decision is to be trusted and Chandor knows that means we all have to join him in that decision. The camera remains inside the boat’s hold while the winds and water batter us with violent surges. And then suddenly the boat begins to capsize, forcing Redford to start scrambling up the side of the boat’s interior and then on to its ceiling, eventually coming to temporary rest on the new floor that has resulted from the completely inverted boat. The effect is brief, but Chandor packs such a visceral, visual thrill with this character-level action that it’s as though he just crammed the entirety of “The Poseidon Adventure” into about two minutes. There’s no Shelley Winters willing to make the long swim to save us all here, though. It’s all up to Our Man, who weathers the storm only to continue his downward spiral into the murky waters.
As his journey unfolds, Chandor goes for thematic depth as he illustrates how Redford’s ailing character is slowly being assimilated by the sea. Without flashbacks to fill us in and only the most minor of hints provided for a backstory, we’re free to make our own conclusions about what brought Our Man to this point, what drove him to keep going, and ultimately where he ends up. Chandor exhibits a kind of directorial focus and confidence that expertly matches the lone seafarer here, refusing to give us easy, obvious answers and anchoring our experience so that we are as much a part of every step of this journey as Our Man is.
The image of a school of fish creating a circle that matches the underwater glimpse of an inflatable lifeboat suggests that the sea is preparing to claim Redford’s character, along with ourselves. When Our Man is passed by a potential rescue ship (full of the kind of containers that first started this journey), it’s easy to write if off that they simply didn’t see him, a speck in this giant ocean, but has Our Man become a ghost, a phantom of the deep? The thematic readings are welcome at this point and Chandor amazingly maintains dramatic focus while also encouraging open-ended interpretations. And so we float, alone on the water, an experience of cinematic solitude that I’ve been aware of before, but never so intimately, so bravely, and so wordlessly. I am in awe of All Is Lost, having found the experience I’ve been looking for in, having now witnessed on the sea of solo cinema a glint of genius that lights up the screen and turns it profoundly upside down.