Release Date: October 25th, 2013 (US limited); December 26th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Drama
Starring: Robert Redford
Robert Redford, in one of the most physically demanding roles to hit cinema screens as of late, is truly captivating in All Is Lost. But not in a flashy way. No, Redford is a loner here. An outcast, literally. He doesn’t talk much. Instead, nature does that for him. For this is a ferociously sounding film and one that, at just under one and three-quarter hours long, probably shouldn’t be as attention-clutching as it ends up consistently being throughout its runtime. There are limits exclusive to the genre, quite obvious at times, but those don’t really matter. This is a fine piece of filmmaking that boasts an even finer central turn from its lonely captain.
A man (Robert Redford) wakes up to an abundance of splashing water careering into his boat. Still half asleep, he ventures up top to check out the commotion and discovers a gaping hole in the vessel’s side caused by an errant shipping container. He doesn’t know it yet but despite fixing the damage in the short-term, the patched up hole is an indicator of the problems to come for the man, problems set to face exasperation at the mercy of an oncoming storm.
Such is the nature of the beast, All Is Lost serves up a very simple story. Man versus nature. There are only really two paths proceedings can slosh down; one, a venture towards the continuation of life and the other, quite frankly, death. Yet despite this perceived lack of narrative territory primed and ready for exploitation, what we see remains utterly captivating. Writer and director J. C. Chandor gets a lot of time out of his simple tale. The near two hour saga — a runtime that might ordinarily generate a tinge of doubt amongst viewers — surprisingly flies in, though given the filmmaker’s succinct track record perhaps surprise is not justified in this instance.
The storytelling is so easy, so uncluttered, that it becomes enticing. Watching Redford’s character patch up a damaged part of the boat transcends mundanity and evolves into something more. It is foreshadowing, but it is also life. This man’s life. He is a sailor and a carpenter. A geographer and chef. The simplicities are accentuated by Chandor’s precise direction and his natural screenplay, growing to the point where every action is must-see. All Is Lost emerges past the man too, though he is always at arm’s length, and considers nature as a pulsating force. The main centrepiece is a prolonged storm sequence that is noisy and intense. Wholly believable, it looks and sounds and presumably acts like a real storm, incessantly dangerous but not Hollywood-ised. We’re eagerly willing for it to pass.
Chandor utilises pathetic fallacy handily — though, admittedly, foreshadowing by way of some grumbling weather is a proposal already there for the taking. We see and hear the storm advance at the same time as Redford. There exists an incoming rush of dread as the captain bolts cupboards mechanically and secures glass bottles. Having said that, the anticipation isn’t overblown and nor should it be given the often low key approach of nature in reality. The inevitable punch carries more weight as a result, leaving Redford — and us — desperately clawing for some motion sickness tablets.
Robert Redford is undoubtedly the film’s infallible anchor. Aside from a sombre and somewhat playful opening monologue where we don’t actually see the actor, there is no verbiage whatsoever for the first twenty minutes. When the man (nameless due to a lack of necessity) finally utters words, he stutters as his throat is so lethargic. The ploy works because it isn’t really a plot. It’s another titbit of reality, one that captures the mood of solitude. Redford’s poise, his calmness laced with acceptance is magnificent. He never fully allows us into his thought process, maintaining a fairly stern stance. Therefore we’re captivated by what the sailor is doing and by what he is about to do — when Redford is analysing the wreckage, for instance. The actor purveys an uncanny grace in the face of turbulence and it is totally inviting.
In some ways, these traits pale in comparison to the sheer physicality of the role. We watch Redford engage in a heap of fixing and heaving and climbing and pumping, a quite miraculous measure given the actor’s advancing years. The eventual intrusion of heavy gale is relentless too, and in this regard Redford’s taxing demeanour adds both to the plight and strength of his lightly-worded character. His performance echoes that of Ryan Reynolds in Buried — we believe the struggle because the struggle is palpable and the sweat is dripping.
Credit should go to Frank G. DeMarco also, his cinematography presenting a quite wonderful setting. The film looks beautiful. Of course when shooting sunscapes that are cascading over waves of blue ocean, there already exists something of a platform to work from, but DeMarco’s excellent gloss aids our placement at sea alongside Redford. It is inventive too; diving with the vessel in a moment of peril particularly sticks out. This look is just one half of a lethal aesthetic duo, partnering up with the outing’s authentic audio. From the initial problem-causing container that groans in accordance, to the boat’s flapping sails caught in the wind, All Is Lost consistently complements our ears. Even the water has a voice, sometimes gentle and pondering, other times violently swelling.
The words ‘all is lost’ can be applied to much: materials that are swamped and destroyed by water; an aimlessly floating container; the doomed vessel; Robert Redford’s stranded, weary man. The film exists within a limited scope and there is only so much it can do, but a permanently laudable sole performance coupled with an incisive aesthetic ensures that All Is Lost a significantly worthwhile trip.