Review: All is Lost

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All is Lost is yet another film this month to be centered upon the struggle for survival, and its direction comes from an unexpected source. If the name J.C. Chandor is an unfamiliar one, its because he’s only directed one feature to date, 2011’s Wall Street film Margin Call, the furthest possible concept from his sophomore effort. It appears that Chandor is ready to prove his versatility, and All is Lost certainly bolsters the claim. If Chandor’s first film was focused upon the gathering clouds before a storm, then All is Lost is the tempest in full force, a technically impressive yet emotionally solemn study with the world wearied strength of Robert Redford at the helm.

The first thing to know about All is Lost is that it is literally a one man show, as the entire film rests on Redford’s shoulders. Compounded with this, there is virtually no backstory provided for Redford’s sailor, such that we do not even know his name. Further, he has barely any dialogue outside of an opening monologue in voiceover that provides the only illumination into his inner life. Where the other survival films of this month were placed in the contexts of slavery, outer space, or a hostage situation, All is Lost is strictly elemental: man versus nature. After its meditative flash forward, All is Lost begins with a creak and break: the man lies asleep as seawater rushes forward on the cabin floor. Though the decades are evident in the creases of his face, he readily rises to inspect the damage to his vessel. A shipping container full of kids shoes is the culprit. After taking stock of the situation, he immediately gets to work on repairing the gash in his hull. However, more trouble is on its way in the form of a menacing storm lumbering across the Indian Ocean. With further unexpected travails set upon him, the man is forced to abandon ship, marooned on a life raft with only the stars as a guide.

If All is Lost has a primary focus it is on texture, and that begins with Robert Redford. Something of an American staple who hasn’t given a major performance in many moons, Redford sinks his 77 year-old teeth into the role, both enigmatic and utterly human. At an early point in the film, a light rain passes and Redford revels in it, pushing up his sleeves to absorb the droplets that will be his only source of a shower. Although it’s a minor scene, Redford’s subtlety in it demonstrates a gentle and resonant moment for a decidedly somber film. Redford is equally captivating when engulfed in the storm, gingerly making his way back and forth from the deck to the cabin, doing all he can to keep his Virginia Jean (the name of his ship and perhaps an allusion to a loved one?) afloat. It’s a portrayal that completely suits Redford, who commands attention simply with a shift in his eyes.

By necessity, the narrative is pretty bare bones, but J.C. Chandor does an admirable job of maintaining an active engagement with the minutiae of his protagonist’s struggles. Whether Redford is battling the waves or simply filling a large jug full of water, Chandor’s attention to detail keeps the film apace. Despite the fact that All is Lost is meant to be more metaphorical than literal, the second half still contains a couple of lapses in logic that diminish the film’s believability. The film is certainly intent on avoiding cliches, but if executed properly, they could have made sense for the character and his journey. The opening of the film itself does a superb job of setting the tone for the rest of the film, but robs the darker moments in the second half of potential emotional heft. Regardless of these issues which are less faults of the film and more preferential, the technical elements of All is Lost are commendably sound. The aural atmosphere is most impressive here, for although the sounds of the ocean are familiar, each bob of a wave or creak in the boat carries weight to our hero’s predicament. Also notable is the photography, varying from the immense expanse of horizonless water, to the closeups of Redford’s hands gripping for life. The subtly affecting score is largely muted, occasionally heard as if submerged miles below the surface in a watery tomb. Like the other survival narratives currently in release, All is Lost is very much a reflection of its protagonist. It may be subdued and emotionally distant, but so are the eyes of its unknowable man: filled with resolute fortitude, pushing forward unto dawn.

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~ by romancinema on October 21, 2013.

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