a l l i s l o s t
26th December 2013
Robert Redford, Nature
31st December 2013
The ocean is an unforgiving place as any fool knows. Especially so if you intend to face it alone and with barely any script. How is one to survive 106 minutes with barely 100 or so words? Surely there is only one 77 year old that could deal with such conditions….
All is Lost is an unforgiving proposition for any actor. 106 minutes of screen time featuring only one actor and a scant few establishing shots, virtually no dialogue and absolutely no character background to speak of. Fortunate then that Robert Redford decided to take the role of the sailer known only as ‘Our Man’ on IMDB and never referred to by name or in fact referred to at all for the entire running length of the movie.
Opening with a brief monologue, played over a surface bobbing camera showing only open ocean and a floating container, this is not a movie that wastes any time establishing much beyond that. We move back eight days from the presumed last words of an unknown sailer to find Redford’s character woken very abruptly as his yacht meets the corner of the floating container, wrecking his communication equipment and tearing a pretty sizeable hole in the hull. Our Man greats the challenge with stolid competence as he tows the container away from his yacht and goes about patching up the hole. The loss of his navigation equipment is a later concern that will ultimately cause more aggravation than the temporary hull breach.
Having dealt with the immediate issue, Our Man soon finds himself in the midst of a tempest that doesn’t relent until the yacht is in tatters and we’ve experienced some of the most horrifying capsizing since the Poseidon threw Gene Hackman onto the ceiling. As the water continues to flood in from various breaches, Our Man finally faces the horrific fact that he needs to collect what he can and abandon his creaking, sinking vessel. A last minute return to the yacht for additional items nearly takes the sailor down with the ship and soon Our Man is drifting alone in the Indian Ocean with only bare rations to keep him company.
J.C. Chandor, previously best known for writing and directing the superb Margin Call shows more considerable promise with his second feature. Despite the vastness of the Indian Ocean, the camera spends the majority of its time focused on its only human participant. The huge expanses of water are largely glimpsed in the background as Redford’s sailor goes about trying to survive. This is especially evident when the yacht capsizes - we spend the entire time in the cabin with Redford and it's terrifying. Only occasionally do we get wider shots. The camera pans slowly across from Redford at the top of his mast, to reveal the growing squall in the distance for example or occasional shots from beneath the sailor’s life raft. These shots from below are as threatening as they are beautiful. They show a gradual progression as the ocean gets used to the sailor’s presence. From a few, tiny fish, the audience beneath the sailor’s refuge grows to schools of larger silvery fish, barracuda and eventually the inevitable sharks circling. As the sailor’s hope recedes, so the gathering increases. It’s a relatively subtle device that heaps tension on an already tense situation.
Redford is, as always superb in the central role. It’s a difficult one because it calls for no grandstanding, no philosophising and no big speeches. Redford’s sailor is the picture of controlled determination. He faces everything thrown at him with the grim acceptance of somebody who has no audience and no other options. Although he faces every situation head on, this is no super-human, he is just as fallible as the next man as his reliance on a navigation manual shows only too well. The lack of monologue is achievable because we can pretty much read every thought and decision on Redford’s sun-beaten face. We live every decision made by Our Man and every moment of anguish as bad luck piles on bad luck. When he finally cracks, all we get is one, utterly heartfelt expletive. Never has man earned his 12A rating moment more.
All is Lost offers us no insight into who Our Man is or what brings him to be sailing alone across the Indian Ocean, even his presumed last words are not addressed to any person in particular - ‘I think you would all agree that I tried.’ Where I’ve lamented the lack of background for characters in many films, in this it makes perfect sense. Our Man is just that, a man in an impossible situation. We can speculate about what brought him here and there is the odd clue - the sextant he is reduced to learning to use on the raft comes in a beautiful box complete with card. The card is discarded without being read, his face betraying the emotion that whatever is written on it is too painful to read as he faces likely death.
All is Lost is an awesome achievement for both star and director. Chandor never once relents on the tension, even in the moments where Our Man collapses exhausted and Redford simply is Our Man. Every moment of this movie is lived through his features and his actions, it is an unrivalled solo performance and one that will guarantee a nomination at the Academy Awards. You’ll emerge from this movie feeling the salt on your skin and exhausted by Our Man’s terrible journey.
Check out the trailer here.