Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Robert Redford (Our Man).
It’s hard, if not near impossible, to make a film about a solitary character by themselves. It’s why the few attempts we’ve had at it over the years have added certain elements to make the films more palatable. So Cast Away (2000) adds a volleyball with a face to give Tom Hanks someone to talk to for the long middle stretch of the movie, Life of Pi (2012) adds in a framing device of the man telling his story to someone else, which allows a lot of voice over narration. The recent Austrian film The Wall has the title character, who is cut off for the rest of humanity, write her story down and narrate over nearly the entire movie. Silence is scary for filmmakers, because how can they convey their characters inner lives, if they never talk?
All of this makes J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost even more impressive than it already is. Here is a film with one actor in its entire running time – who aside from a small voiceover in the first few minutes of the film, that still doesn’t answer all the questions people will have about the character, and a few isolated words yelled either in frustration or to try and attract attention – doesn’t even contain dialogue. The film is all Robert Redford, on a boat, trying desperately to survive – and nothing else. And yet, Redford’s performance is one of the best of the year, even if we never get to know the character’s inner self – or even his name. It doesn’t matter.
The movie opens with a literal bang – as Redford awakes under deck on his yacht, to discover he has just hit a shipping container. He’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by nothing but water, and knows his boat has a sizable leak. We see him disentangle his boat from the container, and realize that all his electronic equipment has been rendered useless by the water. We see him patch the boat, and hatch a plan. He’s going to steer his boat into the shipping lanes fairly close by and hope to be able to catch the attention of a passing boat to be rescued. He has no motor, just his sails – and has to teach himself how to navigate by the stars. He has little hope of survival, but he’s going to try anyway.
Robert Redford is, surprisingly, the perfect actor to play the lead role – identified in the credits as Our Man. He was once one of the biggest movie stars in the world – the George Clooney of his day, as he was a sex symbol who was loved by women, but still relatable to men. And also because, like Clooney, Redford also directed movies – and didn’t just cruise on his movie star charm and good looks (although he could do so when he wanted to). Now 77, Redford is well past his prime as a movie star – his last few films both in front of and behind the camera pretty much came and went without making an impact – but Redford is still the old movie star he always has been. Chandor casts him because of that movie star persona – he is an actor audiences instinctively like and root for – which given that the role doesn’t give him any backstory except that he is a man, alone on a boat, and he has some regrets (which could apply to anyone) is needed here.
All is Lost is a simple film – it is a film about the inevitability of death, and how we all struggle against that inevitability. Age simply brings death closer, and intensifies that struggle. Redford makes this clear throughout the film, as at times, he struggles doing things his younger self would have been able to handle easier – the pumping of water out of the boat, scaling the masts on the yacht, etc. Redford’s performance is almost entirely physical – and it’s remarkable how much he shows the physical and mental strain on his body and mind as the film moves along. Redford is almost the whole show here, and it’s a great one.
The film was written and directed by J.C. Chandor, and that’s surprising given that his only other film as a director was Margin Call (2011) – a very good film about the Wall Street meltdown, which was nothing but talk for its entire running time. I’ve heard some theories connecting All is Lost with Margin Call – saying the film is about the Wall Street meltdown, because it’s about an old, rich white guy on a sinking boat, trying in vain to bail his way out. To me, that’s stretching it more than a little bit. All is Lost is simpler than that – it is about one man, trying to survive. It’s wonderfully made by Chandor, who keeps his focus tightly on Redford throughout – and does great things visually and in particularly aurally – in his filmmaking. But the reason to see the film is Redford – without him, the movie doesn’t work at all. Is it the best performance of Redford’s career? Perhaps, but that’s hard to say, because everything he’s done before All is Lost informs his performance here. An unknown in the lead simply would not have the same impact, even if the performance was the same. This is Redford taking a chance – there are lots of ways this movie, and performance, could have gone horribly wrong. But somehow, it never does.