Saturday, November 9, 2013

All Is Lost

Grade: 93/A

Few American films this year are as audacious as All Is Lost, and even fewer are as thrilling. The sophomore effort by Margin Call writer-director J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost takes the survival film down to an elemental level. It’s a far cry not only from Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, a dialogue and explanation-heavy look at the 2008 financial meltdown, but from the other films of its kind this year (Gravity, Captain Phillips), both of which provide backstory where All Is Lost does not. It’s the most challenging of the three, and the most rewarding.

Robert Redford is the hero and only character in All Is Lost, referred to only as “Our Man” in the credits. Redford, living on his sailboat The Virginia Jean in the Indian Ocean, wakes one morning to find a shipping container (presumably dropped by a carrier) has torn through his hull. Redford hurries to pump out the water and patch the hole so he can be rescued, but his radio and navigational system was damaged by the water, and his work will only last so long. Soon, he faces storms, unsteady waters, and dwindling food and drinking water, among other hardships. Our Man is adaptable, but there’s only so much a man can adapt before he’s defeated.

There is very little dialogue in All Is Lost: an opening letter of apologies that’s clearly addressed to loved ones but reveals no backstory, an unsuccessful distress call on the radio, and a few exclamations. Yet this is clearly the work of the same director who made Margin Call- it’s just as focused on process, arguably more important here than it was in the previous film. There’s not a shot, not a sound, not an action wasted in the film, as Chandor spends the whole time focused on the details of Redford’s struggle.

The framing of the film is masterful, often focusing only on whatever part of Redford matters the most in the scene (the hands as they whittle a makeshift handle for the pump, the legs as he climbs his sail, the back as it strains under all of the work). It gives every moment purpose, and gives weight the more harrowing set-pieces, like the boat being tipped upside-down by a storm, or Redford’s eventual abandonment of the boat for a life raft that’s clearly not going to keep him safe for too long.

Chandor’s use of sound is equally exquisite- at every moment, we are hyperaware of every creak, of every change above and below water, of every sound of thunder in the distance, for what doom it might spell for Our Man. The spare use of Alex Ebert’s score is just as effective, as it plays like a foghorn requiem, like an old flute that’s playing its last tune.

And it might well be the last tune for Our Man, played with intense focus and utility by Redford in what might be the best work of his career. The film likely could have worked with a lesser-known actor in the role, but Redford gives it another dimension. We see one of the last great movie stars stripped of his strength, of his class, and, now at 77 years old, of his once-youthful good looks. It’s easy enough to believe that Our Man is capable of doing the arduous tasks at hand, but they also clearly take a toll on his body, already worn down by age and lord knows what other hardships before the sea, the sun, and the salt take their toll. Great performances are borne not of words, but of action, and Redford’s single-minded struggle to live is more than enough to keep us invested in his survival.

The bone-deep exhaustion of the character isn’t just external, but internal. What’s revealed about the character’s past is vague, but it’s enough to show that he has regrets, pains, and that he’s not ready to let go. Whether he has any choice in that matter or not is hard to say, but it shows Chandor’s continued intelligence regarding how we deal with impending disaster. All Is Lost is brave not only for its forgoing basic dramatic conventions or for rooting us in the particulars of a man’s struggle, but also for showing how we deal with the inevitability of death, whether it’s to come now or a little later.

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