All Is Lost
One man, alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean. No other characters, no one to talk to, all by himself, facing the elements at their most brutal, and fate at its most indifferent. That man is Robert Redford (his character has no name), and this film is magnificent.
It is almost irresistible to draw parallels with Gravity, and there are some similarities, a single person dealing with everything that is thrown at them alone in an endless vista of space/water. Yet they are somehow profoundly different. All Is Lost is less of a thriller, and more of an existential drama. But don’t let that word put you off. What I mean is that it is a film about what it means to be alive, and what a human will do to stay alive when every iota of common sense tells him that he should submit to the superior forces of nature, who seems determined to exterminate him.
I have never been a big fan of Redford, who seems to have been bathing in a warm glow of artificial golden light for too many decades. Yet here, as he approaches the age of 80, he comes into his own as a sailor whose will to survive is both inspiring and wholly credible. He is alone in his boat on the ocean when he wakes one morning to hear the sound of water – coming into his boat. A container (containing cheap trainers, probably Chinese) has fallen off a tanker, and has bashed a hole in his boat. Bad news, but he is resourceful in patching the gaping cavity. But there is worse to come, in the shape of a mother of a storm, and endless setbacks and disappointments that would destroy a lesser man. Redford’s character is clearly not a lesser man.
He is a doer. He doesn’t wave his hands at the sea, and scream curses; or hold his head in his hands and pity himself. He just assesses what is needed, and gets on with it. And yet, through some marvellous cinema-empathy, we know what he is feeling throughout. He recognises that he has brought all this on himself simply by being there – out on the ocean alone. At the beginning of the film, we hear his voice, reading what sounds like a letter, a few lines telling the intended recipient that all is lost, and apologising for unspecified faults. It’s the closest we get to a back story, and the most verbose he is during the film. Otherwise, all is non-verbal.
Director J C Chandor is a 40 year old former commercials director, who made his feature debut 2 years ago with the excellent Margin Call, which was concerned with the downfall of a bank on the eve of financial destruction in 2007. Starring the likes of Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Irons, it was full of characters and conversation, so this is something of a major turnabout for Chandor, and we can only admire his daring in tackling something so different and so (apparently) uncommercial. The presence of Redford, and the excellent reviews it has received (and will continue to receive) may give it more cinematic credibility than a bare description would seem to suggest. And I will add my voice to those of other critics, saying that in its own very different way it is as good a film as Gravity.
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