DIR/WRI: J.C. Chandor • PRO: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, Teddy Schwarzman • DOP: Frank G. DeMarco, Peter Zuccarini • ED: Pete Beaudreau • DES: John P. Goldsmith • MUS: Alex Ebert • Cast: Robert Redford
All Is Lost brings back all my faith in terror and death, to lift a phrase from Dorothy Parker. Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist is sailing his yacht, the Virginia Jean, somewhere near the Sumatra Straits. One day he wakes up to find a substantial hole in his living quarters – the boat’s been struck by a stray shipping container. Frantically, he tries to patch it up. A fat storm sits on the horizon. Here his troubles begin. From then on, we watch Redford’s character react to a series of disasters and rest between them. All Is Lost is not contemplative or poetic in the traditional way of seafaring films; all we have to go on are Redford’s character’s actions. Any downtime is infused with tedium or dull anxiety. There are few instances of capital-c cinematography; pretty shots of the sun rising etc. serve to signal the approach of weather – red skies in the morning and all that.
So pay attention, budding scriptwriters. Just put a solitary person at nature’s mercy and you’ve got yourself a plot. Forget explication, context, even dialogue; in this case, there’s a little speech over the short prologue, a roared expletive later on, and that’s it. All we have to focus on is the man’s minute-to-minute struggle. Director J. C. Chandor recognises that the survivalist film is most absorbing when it plays like a procedural. Life of Pi the book didn’t scrimp on the particulars – urine sores and so on – but the film frontloaded the fabulism and became a different thing. All Is Lost is all about those particulars. Redford paints glue over the patched-up hole in his boat, or he figures out a way to use a plastic bag to make seawater drinkable, or he puts a dressing over a gash, all with the energy and presence most actors reserve for the big weep scene. Or – perhaps the tense cycle of disaster and relief simply supercharges every little movement? And Redford’s achievement is a total ignore-the-camera naturalism? I can’t tell. In 1972’s Jeremiah Johnson, he played the survivalist as messianic action hero, but All Is Lost will grip you more. It of course makes sense that frantic little activities are the real human reaction to disaster – to storms, the angry sea, sharks, death’s general proximity. But it’s so refreshing to see a filmmaker leave traditional action-heroism out of it. The cutting is leisurely but the camera is always smartly placed, so we see every exertion, and every fumble, clearly, without them seeming over-fluid or superhumanly frenzied – Hollywood-ised.
It helps that Redford is old. He looks better than most 77-year-old men, but you can really see it when he tries to clamber about the ship, or whenever there’s a close-up. His own relative proximity to death piles on the sense of the human as feebly ephemeral. Whether or not all of our endeavours are futile is not a question this film ought to be expected to answer. But in All Is Lost, not even the free market is safe from the sea – the shipping container that hits Redford’s character’s boat dribbles cheap sneakers out into the Indian Ocean.
Darragh John McCabe
12A (See IFCO for details)
All Is Lost is released on 27th December 2013