When observing Robert Redford’s unnamed, mostly mute character in J.C Chandor’s brilliant All is Lost, I thought a lot about solitude. When one is completely alone, one acts differently than if they were around others (obviously). As dumb as that sounds, in the context of All is Lost - a film consisting of only one actor – the idea poses a unique challenge for Redford and Chandor. Redford presents realism in its purist form - since his character is alone, he isn’t acting for anyone, he doesn’t need to tell anyone how he feels. When he faces his first challenge – a sizable hole in the side of his boat – he doesn’t seem too worried, but how could we know? He doesn’t mutter curse words to himself, he doesn’t nervously pace around or throw things in frustration. Yet we know how he feels. This understanding is a projection, of course, and therein lies the key to the film’s success. We are given zero backstory and very little specific information about “our man” (as the credits call him), so he quickly becomes a vessel for our own experience. This is the important difference between All is Lost and Gravity - the former boldly tells us nothing while the latter awkwardly tells us too much.*
All is Lost is not formally unconventional. The movie follows the familiar trajectory of what I’ll call the “survival film.” Like J.C. Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, All is Lost demonstrates the writer/director’s strength for harnessing familiar forms to produce story-centric films. All is Lost shows this strength in its purist form. The film is bizarrely simple (again: there’s zero backstory). This narrative simplicity makes it allegorical, like a short story; Redford’s enigmatic screen presence makes it cinematic, like a movie.
If this whole one-guy-on-a-boat-for-two-hours thing sounds pretty boring, rest assured that, although this is a film about isolation, it won’t make you feel isolated. Chandor cares deeply for his audience and his film offers an experience that is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Like Gravity, the experience of watching All is Lost is, first and foremost, immersive and physical. The sound design is crucial to this effect and acts almost as another character, as does the beautiful score from Alex Ebert. These two elements play off each other brilliantly as the moaning and creaking of the boat’s deterioration meshes with the lush horn textures of Ebert’s music.
It can be guessed from the poster that this is a movie about the struggle to survive, but it is also a movie about the choice to survive. Throughout All is Lost, our man is constantly having to make the fundamental human choice to fight or to submit. The film’s conclusion [don't worry, no spoilers] handles this choice with a subtlety that effectively elevates the film to greatness. Just as “our man” is aptly named, I could call the ending “our ending” as it offers a conclusion whose meaning is largely dependent on our subjective experience. To me, it is a brilliantly rewarding ending to a film that is damn-near perfect.
*I don’t mean to hate on Gravity, which was one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences I’ve had this year. The script has it’s clunky moments, sure, but they are largely forgivable in the context of the movie. I bring it up only as a means of comparison.
9 out of 10