Our man is awakened with a jolt. Something’s happened. He slowly gets up to see what the trouble is. There’s water pouring into the deck; there’s been a breach in the hull. Our man observes this studiously, he takes it in, he doesn’t panic. He knows what he’s doing. What has caused this, however, remains a mystery so he goes above deck to have a look. He has run right into a floating shipping container, about 30 feet long—must have fallen off of a cargo ship. Our man scrunches his face a little. Bad luck. Worse luck is that the hole the container ripped in his boat was right above his navigational and communication equipment, destroying all. Our man begins to patch the hole.
That is the set-up, and in many ways the style, of All Is Lost (2013). Our man is played by Robert Redford and for 100 minutes we will watch his luck get worse and worse in his struggles to reconnect with civilization. First the storms, unseen by broken equipment, descend upon him, then the sharks arrive and soon the food has run out. Our man reacts to this with competence and practicality; he never panics and coolly reacts to each situation the exact way he should, which, he finds out, is often not good enough. Redford gives a muscular performance of quiet restraint, creating a person out of nothing. J.C. Chandor, who directed and wrote the script, adds very little dialogue and no back story. I don’t know what this person does for a living, what he’s trying to get back to or what drives him out to sea in the first place, and yet I feel like I know him better than many movie protagonists. I’ve heard that drinking doesn’t make you a different person; it only amplifies the person you are. I would think that applies to extreme situations, the kind that our man finds himself in. If that’s the case, then our man is relentless and unshakable, serious and observant. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013), part of the interest in the movie is seeing the plot string him along and throw more obstacles in his way and, like Bullock, Redford has to react and hold our attention mainly with his face. But in comparison we knew so many more details about Bullock’s character and yet I feel we get just as close to the person our man is in All Is Lost.
Chandor directs at a pace that is like the tide, moving forward always but at different speeds. Very little is lingered on but all is given enough screen time to make an impact. The absence of dialogue is coupled with an absence of humor; there’s no levity in the running time and that makes for some dryness, but ultimately it’s correct. I was treated as an adult by this movie. I don’t know the first thing about sailing and I didn’t particularly learn anything here, but I got to watch a man go about his business, in silence, in deliberation. There’s no voiceover, no volleyball to talk to and explain what he’s doing; he does it and I was asked to figure out why. If I felt it was foolish to abandon the sailboat in the middle of a storm for what appeared to be a flimsy life raft, I was quickly shown that our man knows better. Chandor, who broke on the scene with 2011’s Margin Call,seems to have a Scorsese-like need to explain how things work, though with a restraint that recalls Bresson. There’s little to no affectation here, little sensation, and yet it’s incredible just the same because the director trusted in his story and his lead actor, who rewards him with a rich but subtle performance that drives the movie like wind in a sail.
All Is Lost feels almost like a poem, a soft meditation on the nature of preparedness and certainly the nature of unpredictability. It’s slow in the way that hopelessness can be, a certain ennui that precedes an inevitable and unavoidable doom. There’s a certain beauty in that, like seeing the soft underbelly of a shark, that scrubs the movie clean of dread. We’re never really worried for our man because he doesn’t have anything to learn, except what’s coming next, and then he’ll just do the best he can.