Silver Screen: All Is Lost ****
According to the familiar joke, the second happiest day of your life is the day you buy a boat. The happiest day is the day you sell it. But that old saw leaves out one critical day, which is the day the human spirit’s triumphant struggle to survive against all odds and an apparent lack of greater metaphysical meaning is literalized when said boat capsizes.
That’s the day— or rather couple of days— that concerns J.C. Chandor’s deliberate, mostly fascinating survival tale All Is Lost. It’s a one-man show, both on and off screen. Chandor is the movie’s sole writer and director, while star Robert Redford is the film’s lone actor. To make a movie with virtually no dialogue centered around a performer nearing his eightieth birthday in modern-day Hollywood is a kind of inspiring feat all its own, and Chandor’s film is thoroughly dedicated to its own premise. Even more so than the technically superior Gravity, another recent survival story about being alone and adrift, All Is Lost never retreats into the safety of a dream sequence or shoehorns in a bit of backstory.
We never even learn the name of our sailor. His personality is defined by two key factors, his resilience and whatever preexisting notions we have of Redford himself. It works perfectly, no doubt thanks in part to Redford’s deliberately cultivated reputation as a kind of cerebral loner. Though far from a recluse, Redford is a lifelong movie star whose latter-day career has been significantly defined by his Sundance Institute and film festival, which, at least at its inception, prized independence above all things. He’s a guy who likes to do things his own way, and even his trendy festival takes place in an otherwise sparse (if posh) mountain town. Redford is both a curator of the arts and the man who was Jeremiah Johnson; he’s the personification of a kind of refined ruggedness.
Redford’s maritime adventurer is sailing solo through the Indian Ocean when his small yacht collides with a castoff shipping container. The drifting container trails a wake of cheap, foreign-made sneakers. It’s a perfect, not too on-the-nose symbol— a man trying to find some solace on a lonely seaward voyage, still intruded upon by the blunt force of modernity and globalism.
Most of All Is Lost is procedural. The sailor studies the hole in the side of his leaking boat and sets about repairing it as best he can while attempting to prepare his communications equipment for a mayday call. He remains stoic as he is befallen by one calamity after another. When circumstance and the elements nullify his previous solutions, he redoubles his efforts, makes another plan, and keeps his hands busy. A looming storm swiftly becomes an immediate threat. Chandor depicts the chaos both inside and outside the boat using mostly practical effects, and the results are far more terrifying and awe-inspiring than most of this year’s more elaborate, computer-generated thrills.
Despite the lack of dialogue and interaction with other characters, All Is Lost is never boring. However, the very awareness of the film’s premise can render the movie slightly tedious at times. When you know there’s another hour of running time left to the movie, some of the early scenes of Redford patching up the boat and tinkering with his radio take on a sense of futility both for the character and the viewer. There’s another hour left in the movie and you aren’t going to see another actor the whole time, so goofing with the radio and priming the bilge pump ain’t gonna work, Bobby! Yet it’s these efforts in defiance of seeming futility that give the movie its meaning. As such, All Is Lost is a great movie to watch, but perhaps not such a great one to rewatch.
Chandor is able to convey this desolation without turning his film into one long, waterlogged bummer. He earns his triumphs without capitulating to sentiment or ontological platitudes. The sailor’s fate never feels like a foregone conclusion, and in the film’s final, moving minutes, the struggle is validated on its own terms. That, Chandor seems to be saying, is the very best we can hope for.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.