All is Lost (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Travis Maiuro
Produced by Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb; directed by J. C. Chandor; written by J. C. Chandor; cinematography by Frankie DeMarco; underwater cinematography by Peter Zucccarini; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Alex Ebert; starring Robert Redford. Color, 106 min. A Roadside Attractions release, http://www.roadsideattractions.com.
In his book Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum recounts the true-life tale of when, as a fifty-one-year-old man, he departed Boston in a ramshackle boat and circumnavigated the globe, arriving back in Massachusetts three years later. The book was published in 1900, and according to the back cover of the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, it is regarded as one of literature’s greatest voyage stories. The book not only tackles Slocum’s adventures through monstrous storms and run-ins with pirates, but it also ruminates on the power of solitude.
Perhaps more interesting than the story in this book is what happened nine years later, when the sixty-year-old Slocum sailed off from Martha’s Vineyard and was never seen again. It’s a story that would make for an enticing film, if handled correctly. The open sea is like a femme fatale, seductive and beautiful, but also dangerous and deadly. Slocum met this femme fatale and she had her way with him, as she does with Robert Redford in J. C. Chandor’s pensive and compelling film.
The film begins with Redford’s septuagenarian protagonist already lost at sea. Title cards inform us that he is 1,700 nautical miles from Indonesia’s Sumatra Straits. The camera stares into a soft, early morning purple horizon against an eerily quiet ocean as Redford’s resigned and fear-tinged voice-over carries over the shot, “All is Lost here, except for soul and body.” These words not only apply to this man’s present situation as he is stranded at sea, but also to the film itself. Chandor strips the film down to its bare bones, to the soul and body of cinema—to the essence of the art form—and it’s powerful as hell.
All Is Lost could easily be a silent film and it practically is—dialogue is nearly absent, which is one reason the film feels so real. There are no clumsy moments in which Redford’s character talks to himself, simply for the sake of letting the audience know what he’s thinking. The same goes for voice-over, the only instance of which is the opening monologue that lasts no more than a minute and a half.
Simply put, the film is image and story. To be truthful, it’s debatable whether this film actually has a story. It is purely an account of one man’s quest to stay alive. A man wakes up one morning in the cabin of his yacht to find that his solo voyage has gone disastrously wrong. Water gushes through a now gaping hole in the side of his boat, compliments of a Chinese shipping container floating adrift in the Indian Ocean. And of course, it only goes downhill from there. As viewers, we’re just along for the ride, unable to offer help from the other side of the screen, but wanting to do so. Instead, we’re sitting back and watching this man struggle in his attempts to salvage his boat, signal for help, ration his food, and cope with solitude.
A number of survival films recently have been pitting man against nature and the prospect of death—Into the Wild (2007), 127 Hours (2010), Life of Pi (2012)—but All Is Losttakes risks those films do not. Along with the chancy move of very minimal dialogue, the film refuses to rely on expository flashbacks as a crutch to give us a peek into the life of Redford’s character and a sense of where he is coming from. Is he—or was he—a married man? His boat is named Virginia Jean—perhaps after a wife? Does he have kids? To whom does he address his words in the opening and only voice-over? Why is he in the Indian Ocean? There are no answers to these questions—we don’t even get the guy’s name. For all we know, he could be Jeremiah Johnson of the sea. We’re left watching a stranger of a man, but, at the same time, he’s not a stranger at all—his anonymity allows viewers to empathize, to share in his apprehension and dread. Such questions, in the end, don’t really matter. We hardly know him, but we still fear for him—he’s a blank canvas onto which viewers can project themselves. Chandor uses the guise of a survival film to present a mirror to the audience, a mirror that reveals two emotions overpowering all others: fear and regret.
Redford’s character is credited as “Our Man.” Our Man initially handles the hole in his boat with a level head, almost casually, infusing the character with a meditative quietness. With this role, it’s as if Redford, while looking death in the face, is looking back on a long and varied career in which he directed and starred in a few iconic films, along with creating a now internationally renowned film festival. He’s still sporting his trademark mop of boyish hair, but his face is now lined and grizzled, especially when squinting against the blinding sun reflecting off the sea. With no dialogue, Redford’s face is the main performer, and with subtlety, he gives so much. In one of the few vocal moments, after running out of canned water, Our Man finally breaks down and Redford, screaming to the heavens, lets out possibly one of the most heartbreaking “fucks” ever to resonate in the cinema.
The script, written by Chandor, totals a not-so-massive thirty-two pages—a bit of a turnaround from his previous well-received Margin Call (2011), an intense, dialogue-driven look at the hours leading up to the world financial crisis. Like All Is Lost, it’s a bit of a survival film, darkly cynical in tone. But unlike All Is Lost, Margin Call comes off almost as a stage production, taking place primarily on one floor. One could argue that All Is Lost, set on a boat and then a raft, is quasitheatrical as well, but that ignores the breadth of the film. The midsection of the film is swashbuckling in every sense of the word—man versus nature, man versus the femme fatale that is the sea. Our Man battles violent storms and crashing waves, having been knocked into the water multiple times, but still finding the strength to rise back up.
Cinematographer Frankie DeMarco and underwater director of photography Peter Zuccarini are, in part, responsible for the film’s jaw-dropping scope. Initially, the camera stays close to Redford, as if almost attached, upon his discovering the hole in his boat and tediously repairing it. The early shot compositions present the film as small, almost quaint. As it progresses, shots reveal that small and quaint have nothing to do with this film. In a scene that situates Redford in his crow’s nest of the yacht, a close-up shows him staring off into the distance, brow furrowed. The camera pans around Redford, exposing an oncoming furious-looking thunderstorm—a perfect encapsulation of that stomach-dropping, “Holy shit…” feeling. And the scene is quietly natural—just the sounds of water, no ominous musical score necessary.
Scored by Alex Ebert, a Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter, best known as the lead singer for the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and therefore not a conventional film composer, the music fits perfectly. Ebert is an alternative but a fitting composer, given the risky choices Chandor makes throughout the film as a whole. Ebert provides a haunting yet delicate undertone for the film, echoing Redford’s emotional trajectory.
Redford has stated in interviews that, during all the years he’s watched over Sundance, none of the filmmakers showcased ever invited him to be in their next film—except for J. C. Chandor. “I felt like he was an actor who could pull it off,” Chandor has said about his leading man. Redford not only pulls it off, but he also perfectly embodies the rough-hewn, rational, defeated man. His storied filmography and his California golden-boy looks define him as a quintessential American actor. In this role, he’s playing an American Everyman, and while better looking than most, he’s still your father, your brother, your neighbor, your friend. In a larger sense, however, he’s the country of America, itself.
Playing the role of a fading America, Redford is forced to come to grips with the fact that he cannot always be the top dog, as viewers are forced to realize that the country can no longer play invincible king of the world. This man who thought he could conquer these foreign waters completely alone, with no help at all, is brutally made aware that there are other countries powerful enough to claim their own territory, powerful enough to cut him off and take the lead. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that the shipping container fatally gouging his boat is from China.)
In a smaller sense, Redford is the average American Joe, just trying to survive, whose plights are ignored by those too rich to care. Just when it seems all hope is lost, with one safety flare remaining, a colossal American cargo ship approaches Redford as he sits in his little raft. He stands up as the ship moves nearer and nearer—it’s so close now, maybe only fifty or so feet from him. Our Man fires his last flare but to no avail. The ship plows on, as Redford desperately attempts to flag it down, screaming and shouting and waving his arms wildly. The corporate powers bypass the little man—at sea or on land, it doesn’t matter where.
The role that Chandor has written is a somewhat provocative yet satisfying critique of where America stands as a nation and also where we stand as a people in this moment in time, enabling the film to work on a universal level—Redford’s character is far from perfect, his selfishness and pride responsible for landing him in trouble in the first place. But that’s what makes him work; it makes him honest and true.
The film isn’t as bleak as it may seem; a final shot of Our Man finally grasping a helping hand—whether real or not—says a lot. It’s a shot filled with hope and optimism. Hope that Our Man, in the midst of battling nature and self, has learned from the ordeal—an optimistic sense that Our Man, whether at the moment of his death or of his rescue, has finally realized that he cannot do it all alone—that he is indeed just a very small human being in a very large world. Repeated shots from underwater show his tiny speck of a life raft, followed by schools of fish and later sharks. And well into the film an extreme wide shot also captures this idea wonderfully, with Redford floating in his raft, nearly swallowed by the blanket of blue water. It’s quite incredible to recognize how gorgeous the face of death can be.
Travis Maiuro is an English/cinema studies major at Rider University.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2