All is Lost
J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost (2013) starring Robert Redford has opened to critical acclaim across North America. The praise is for Redford’s subtle and physical performance that will certainly be up for an Oscar Nomination if not an Oscar Win for Best Male Performance in 2013. Previously, Chandor wrote and directed Margin Call (2011) which received favorable reviews for its negative depiction of investment bankers and finance capitalism. Chandor’s All is Lost is quite a divergence from his previous film with its ensemble cast compared to this one man show with almost no dialogue miles away from corporate intrigue and greedy capitalists.
The film begins with a voice-over from Redford sounding defeated, sad, but also resigned, like a good stoic, to his fate. The voice-over confirms the fatalistic tone implied by the title which continuously increases throughout the film. Chandor shows us a shipping container submerged in the ocean and circles it with his camera. Redford’s character (he has no name in the film; IMDB refers to his character as “Our Man”) wakes up to water rushing through a gaping hole in his sailboat. Realizing that his sailboat has hit a shipping container and is now slowly sinking, Our Man wastes no time cursing or panicking but gets to work dislodging his boat. This disruption, a shipping container full of shoes (here’s the films first jab at global capitalism), punctures Our Man’s sailboat and vacation; now he must find a way to survive in the empty sea.
Redford’s performance is definitely worthy of praise, especially considering that he’s 77 years old and gives a physical performance that most actors 50 years younger would shy away from. Redford performed all of his stunts and put his body through pain to provide the realism that Chandor was going for. On screen presence and charisma is something that Redford has in spades and he brought all of it to All is Lost (and to every performance since Inside Daisy Clover (1965)). Charisma and a captivating presence are basic prerequisites for a film like All is Lost to work because it focuses entirely on this character and nothing else. Without dialogue or other characters to interact with there had better be someone interesting to watch for an hour and fifty minutes.
Chandor’s visual style emphasizes the large and small problems Our Man goes through while trying to stay alive. Redford is rarely framed in wide-shots except for a few sequences when Chandor wanted to show the way Redford’s body gets thrown about by the frequent bouts of violent weather. The tight framing reflects the film’s depiction of the relationship between humans and the universe. According to this film, there is no benevolent creator watching over us but rather the cold indifference of nature. By framing his subject so tightly Chandor any sort of contextualization of Our Man’s struggle within a larger universe. Nothing is as important as focusing on the details of Our Man’s struggle to stay alive.
Not only is god dead but Our Man’s struggle never goes beyond the immediate or the physical. He is alone without any thoughts about the purpose for his life. While the film appears to play like an existential journey, there are no reflections on existence or meaning or value or love or anything. Our Man is going from problem to problem with nothing more than a look of mild annoyance throughout the entire film. The only time he speaks to himself is when he is so angry at the salt water in his reserve water jug that his voice breaks and he struggles to yell an explicit word (if I was in Our Man’s place I would have been on my five thousandth explicit word by that point, and that’s a conservative estimate).
So in Chandor’s lost-at-sea survival film Our Man is truly alone (he’s in bad company as J-P Sartre would say). It is worth noting that when Chandor’s camera does veer off his subject he photographs the boat from below, from the perspective of the depths of the sea. This shot repeats three times, and each time there are more fish circling his boat until eventually the sharks come. The sharks don’t pay off until later when Our Man gets a bite on his line only to lose his dinner to a shark. Watching All is Lost made me think of the type of film that Terrence Malick would make if he wasn’t obsessed with religious experiences and didn’t have access to steadicam equipment. Which is to say that All is Lost has its quiet and meditative moments like Malick’s cinema but they are intentionally empty and ruthlessly secular because the transcendentalism that a film like this might imply is replaced with an indifferent materialism. In fact, indifference might be the key concept for unlocking the way this film operates. For example, a later scene recalls the earlier scene with the stray shipping container that started this whole mess. Our Man is floating by a massive shipping carrier with stacks upon stacks of identical containers to one that derailed his voyage. He tries to get their attention with a flair but his attempt fails and the ship floats past without any sign of recognition (here’s the other jab at global capitalism). Indifference defines the relationship between Our Man and everything outside of him; the only interaction he’s made was between a shark that stole his food.
Chandor’s unrelenting realism and decision to situate this narrative in a world where god is dead allows All is Lost to almost become a pure survival film, one where the drama is derived from the actions required to survive and nothing else. Mortality and being-toward-deathness exist in every frame of the film which makes for a surprisingly tense while somewhat exhausting experience. And, it is only with Redford’s star power that this film got made and distributed, otherwise I can’t see any reason why the bean-counters would fund a film like this even though it was made relatively cheap (the budget was $9 million). Budgets and accounting aside, Redford’s performance certainly brings the weight needed for a role like this and I’m predicting here that he will be awarded in the Oscar season.