I’m not as wild about J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost as I’m apparently supposed to be. It’s exactly like it sounds — about 100 minutes of Robert Redford as a nameless character (the film bills him as “Our Man”) on a sinking boat, later a rubber life raft, trying to stay alive in the Indian Ocean. It has no dialogue and very little monologue. There is no humanized volleyball here to natter with. There is a voiceover at the beginning of Our Man reading a farewell letter he writes much later in the film, but that’s about it. It feels like a reaction to Chandor’s first film, 2011’s Margin Call, which was almost entirely dialogue. It also feels like a stunt — and that’s because it is a stunt. Seriously, what else do you call a film that asks you to spend its entire running time with one very taciturn character? It is, however, a surprisingly successful stunt. How successful it is will vary from viewer to viewer. I was merely relieved not to find myself bored stiff, but I was never as immersed in the story as I was meant to be.
Our Man is a complete cipher. His past is a mystery to us, and his future looks far from rosy. All we have is the present. We observe that he’s far from young (plus, we know Redford is 77), yet surprisingly agile and tenacious. We assume that he’s wealthy, since poor folks are rarely off sailing yachts. He’s obviously an experienced seaman (though one wonders why he has to read a book on how to use a sextant), but beyond that … nothing. Why is he at sea in the first place? We don’t know, and we never will. The idea — helped to some degree by the casting of the iconic Redford — is to create a kind of mythic figure out of him. Does it work? Sort of.
That it works at all is largely attributable to the presence of Robert Redford. The only person who would’ve been better is Gary Cooper, but he hasn’t worked in a while. As noted by director Josef von Sternberg, Cooper had the ability to be interesting by just standing there. Redford isn’t quite capable of that, but he is a self-contained presence that can hold the screen without doing very much. In this film, that’s essential. He has to come across as so self-sufficient in his own mind that he needs no one, including the audience. That’s both fascinating and a little off-putting.
If there’s any real dramatic arc in the film, it’s less about whether Our Man will survive than whether he’ll accept his own limitations. This doesn’t entirely work for me. I can see it, but I can’t honestly say I feel it. I don’t really buy that Our Man or anyone would endure this in almost complete silence — dramatically punctuated by one single, “Fuck!” shouted to the unyielding, uncaring heavens. It’s dramatically valid, I suppose, but I just don’t believe it. There has been a certain amount of criticism about the film’s ending — something that can’t be discussed here — but it’s one of the things about All Is Lost I don’t have issues with. I’m not even sure that it’s what it seems on the surface — something I’d be glad to discuss after you’ve seen the film. And, yes, I think you should see it despite its shortcomings. All Is Lost is worth a look. Rated PG-13 for strong language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas