The Old Man and the Cinema

All is Lost
(USA, 106 min.)
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Robert Redford stars in All is Lost, an eOne release.
It’s a shame I already used the line “does for water what Gravity does for air” whilst reviewing Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark, for the likeness seems far more fitting for J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. Haste makes waste. All is Lost truly is the Gravity of the roaring ocean. The rolling waves are as beautiful and ominous as the expansive nothingness of outer space in Cuarón’s VFX blockbuster. All is Lost, like Gravity, is a riveting survival tale among the elements.

Comparisons to last year’s Life of Pi are just as likely to abound while discussing All is Lost as are references to Gravity, for this film is a one person show of a man (Robert Redford) clinging to life at sea. (The film deserves equal comparison to the overlooked Canadian film The Disappeared, which tells of a group of man stranded on a lifeboat following a shipwreck.) However, there are no tigers in All is Lost, nor 3D effects, nor IMAX grandeur. Chandor simply finds an epic scope by scaling the film back to the basic elements of cinema: a man, story, and a camera.

Chandor creates 106 minutes of enthralling tension as the unnamed sailor tries to salvage his boast after it crashes into a wayward cargo hold like the Titanic did with an iceberg. An expert crew helps the unconventional captain deliver a thrilling film. The intricate sound design of All is Lost, accented sparingly by the haunting score by Alex Ebert, has the audience twitch and quiver with every creak of the ship that brings the sailor closer to death. Restrained cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and luminous underwater work by Peter Zuccarini make All is Lost a gruelling action-adventure in which nature is the villain. When the camera deftly cranes around to give the sailor’s point of view as he sees the storm clouds rolling in to challenge the patchwork he has just placed on his damaged yacht, All is Lost turns the mood from hope to despair with just a subtle move of the camera.

There is simply no need for costly embellishments when a film rests on an actor as strong as Robert Redford. Redford’s immaculate performance is a genuine feat. The actor has few lines in the film, save for a few distress calls and one almighty F-bomb. He also reads the sailor’s good-bye letter that frames the film and declares that “all is lost” before the film reveals the man’s struggle to stay alive. The letter admittedly makes the conclusion of the film feel like a mild cop-out after All is Lost invites the audience to witness the sailor's brave last stand as he meets his fate.

All is Lost gives the audience nothing in terms of a backstory as it shows the man fight for survival. There doesn’t seem to be a wedding ring on the sailor’s hand as he steers the Virginia Jean through the waters and his boat seems free of photographs and personal souvenirs. An intriguing interlude sees the man take a break while he salvages meagre possessions before abandoning the ship altogether: he stops to shave and, maneuvering the razor along his elderly face as the storm roars above him, Redford conveys that this is a man of quiet dignity. Our man, visibly wealthy given the boat on which he sails, is humble and at peace regardless of the cirumstances the brought him to the Indian Ocean. He’s clearly fighting for someone, or something, as All is Lost defines the man mostly by his passion for the sea.

Redford speaks a script’s worth of words and language, though, as he moves about the boat in a masterfully nuanced turn. The actor’s weathered face as conveys a man with a genuine lust for life, a man who refuses to die when Mother Nature throws every element at him as if insisting that his time has come. Chandor’s script for All is Lost is reportedly an unconventional prose composition of approximately thirty pages—essentially a short story—which comes as a surprise if one considers that Chandor’s breakout feature Margin Call was a talky ensemble piece.

All is Lost is an intriguing example of a dialogue-free prose script being filmable as written after last week’s misfire of Cormac McCarthy’s talky prose poem for The Counselor. Rather than tell the viewers all they need to know, All is Lost allows Redford and Chandor to find the meaning within the descriptions and directions. Redford gives a remarkable feat of interpretation, as he transforms Chandor’s script into a cinematic human experience that is relatable on both a gut and emotional level. Smartly using the expressivity reminiscent of the silent era, in which even the slightest overplay of a gesture could careen a performance from subtlety to hamminess, Redford anchors All is Lost like the Jean Dujardin of the high seas.

It’s a bold move to demand a veteran actor to helm a silent old-school adventure when the industry increasingly caters to interchangeable stars and trends of the moment. All is Lost is Redford putting his career and reputation on the line, for it asks if the seventy-seven year old actor can carry a film alone. Redford, however, shows the young whippersnappers how it’s done. All is Lost feels like the culmination of Redford’s work as a Hollywood icon, for he gives a masterful performance that proves he is every inch an actor as he is a star. Moreover, the silent bare bones affair of All is Lost seems like an ideal project for the Sundance Kid, as he keeps the spirit of bold, independent filmmaking alive in this maverick affair. Haste doesn’t make waste for Redford: All is Lost shows that he still has plenty of tricks to reveal forty years after The Sting.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

All is Lost is currently playing in limited release.
It screens in Ottawa at Silver City Gloucester.