All Is Lost begins with a quiet, matter-of-fact voice over about death and defiance. A man explains why he’s given up and the simplicity of the language is jarring; it’s like Hemingway, except without the exaltation of courage. JC Chandor’s follow-up to the excellent Margin Call is a complete reversal in ambition and scope: instead of a dialogue-heavy ensemble drama, we have one character who barely says a word. All Is Lost is nonetheless riveting thanks to its indifferent logic, and how nature cares little for our survival.
The credits list Robert Redford as “Our Man.” We learn from a title card that he’s 1700 miles off the coast of Sumatra, and he’s already in trouble when we meet him. He’s on his boat The Virginia Jean, and he’s alone. A shipping container fell off a freighter, and struck a small hole in the boat’s side. The man does not panic when he sees the container: he’s confused, and then starts to solve the problem. He does this wordlessly, and without any apparent fear or anger. Days pass, and then storms arrive. The Virginia Jean sinks, so the man sets off in the life raft. He hopes to drift toward a shipping lane where maybe a larger ship will notice him. Maybe.
The man’s situation is not a disaster from get-go. Unlike many survivals films that use catastrophe as a catalyst, Chandor builds the man’s situation inexorably. He’s only one move ahead, at least until nature pitilessly upends his hard work. It is fascinating to watch the man think: he sometimes communicates with his eyes, and Chandor uses the man’s improvisations to help us understand the limits of the boat, as well as what resources the man has. This type of filmmaking is highly subjective. Unlike The Perfect Storm, which zoomed out to give us the greater context of the storm, Chandor instead opts to keeping the action in the confines of the boat. It’s scary and disorienting (in the best way), and they only way we get through is the man’s taciturn nature.
I talk to myself sometimes. I have no idea whether it’s more or less than the average person, but when I’m riding my bike or walking through my apartment I sometimes blurt out song lyrics, profanity, or utter nonsense. I mention this because All Is Lost is noteworthy for how the man barely speaks. At first it seems like a flourish: Chandor challenges himself and the viewer by removing what’s most common in modern film. But the longer we stay with the man, the more plausible it all seems. Not many people would elect to spend time alone in the middle of the ocean, but I imagine there’s a shift in the ones who do. They’re comfortable with themselves to the point where speech isn’t required, and the film reflects that.
Early reviews from Cannes were ecstatic about Redford’s performance. One critic said he gives “the performance of a lifetime,” and the phrase “tour de force” was thrown around a lot. It’s a great performance, this is true, but not in the way these critics think. Redford’s work is reserved and workmanlike; there can be no tour de force when an actor turns down his charisma for the good of the film in question. Redford is compulsively watchable, but it’s because he shows how the man thinks and nothing in film inspires more careful attention.
There are two intriguing moments where we something about the man: the first is what happens he opens an untouched box, and the other is when he finally allows himself to curse his misfortune. These focal points raise more questions and answers, yet have an oblique way of addressing the grim language from the opening voice over. Chandor does not make a fuss of these moments, and they’re specific enough so that the man is more than a victim of circumstance.
It is easy to compare All Is Lost with Gravity, another minimalist survival story where one person must overcome an unforgiving environment. Whereas Gravity is technical marvel, All Is Lost is a triumph of storytelling. Chandor and Redford have the confidence to eschew anything too dramatic and find the suspense elsewhere. The storm scene is nowhere near as riveting as the moments leading up to it, in which the man realizes what’s about to happen and plans accordingly. This is not a story of a man who triumphs over nature. It’s the story of a man who succumbs to it. All Is Lost ends on a positive note, one that’s not entirely necessary, yet it’s earned by Chandor, Redford, and a character who is too smart and stubborn to be brave.