All Is Lost, Review
All Is Lost is the awesome subplot of a more amazing film. Robert Redford is a movie legend in crisis mode.
At the end of J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, the names of Michael Bay and James Cameron are mentioned in the “Special Thanks” section. It’s a peculiar addition, two of the loudest, most powerful voices in blockbuster filmmaking history having influenced such a quiet, modest film. After Chandor’s debut, you would have never thought about the filmmakers behind Avatar and Pearl Harbor. That film, Margin Call, is a small, talky but tense thriller about the financial crisis, smart enough to earn a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. But in its narrow halls meetings, shadowy whispers, and intense bloviating from a supremely talented cast playing three-dimensional awful people, you’d never guess Chandor would feel the need to salute two of the vanguards of modern blockbuster filmmaking.
But nothing about All Is Lost feels familiar or populist. In fact, at times, it doesn’t even seem like a movie, instead stringing together suspense sequences that suggest a real-time crisis miraculously captured via camera. Chandor strips the narrative bare, tossing you into the deep end with no life preserver. In Margin Call, he did the same, immersing you in a world of jargon and trusting the audience to keep up. Here, it’s no longer a metaphor: a character known as “Our Man” in the credits is away at sea on a yacht, with few cares in the world, appreciating the solitude. With the creases and contours of star Robert Redford’s face, the suggestion seems to be that this is a man that’s always wanted a vacation. It’s also the suggestion that his impulses will never let him take one.
His response to a severe accident on the boat is not lazy, nor is it paranoid and vigilant. When there’s a breach in the hull, Redford’s unnamed protagonist treats the serious problem as an annoyance, as if every day a crate full of sneakers ruptures his ship. This crate, a massive interruption from the rest of polite society, almost seems like it’s preventing the man from retreating, a reminder that he’s always at the mercy of the type of global culture that lets these sneakers go missing. The crate isn’t a metaphor as much as a reminder that we cannot escape the waste we make. Spiritually or otherwise.
Then again, maybe Our Man is a visiting alien who has never seen a crate full of sneakers before, unable to grasp their meaning. This reading isn’t necessarily supported by the film, nor is it debunked. All Is Lost begins with a brief block of narration from Redford’s character, but the details he shares about his life are sparse, and altogether too pat. Hearing them in Redford’s commercial-ready tones, they don’t suggest a full life as much as they distract from the meat of the rest of the film. Making him unknowable works in that it forces you to make connections and form beliefs about this nowhere man. Filling in sparse, superficial details feels like a cop-out, a bland attempt to make him somewhat more relatable, and to reveal that Our Man (and who are the “we” or “Our Man”?) has such a way with voiceover suggests this wasn’t a man in conflict with himself, and he therefore might not carry the gravity Chandor might hope for when he’s placed in danger.
The crate issue would flummox anyone else, but this man is a trooper, and a little elbow grease later gets the hole patched up. His only smile is the tiniest of grins when he finishes wiping down the formerly-flooded cabin, and it’s not a self-satisfied one. But that was just a teaser – inclement weather conditions threaten the vessel once more, forcing Redford’s wily old man to improvise, which he does so silently but efficiently. The film is always darting around the ship, but Redford often stops, and we’re allowed to watch him think. It’s impossible for a film buff to look at that face under siege and not think this is a legend in crisis mode, that it’s the industry that threatens to push Mr. Sundance to the margins. Ultimately it’s a sea change, and there isn’t much one of the godfathers of contemporary independent cinema can do but survive.
There’s a rush of survivalist stories lately that don’t celebrate heroism or difficult moral choices, but rather a you-are-there verisimilitude. This approach has its strengths, but at the expense of flattened characters and diminished moral complexity. Sandra Bullock doesn’t need to persevere in Gravity, she just needs to survive. And Captain Phillips himself is taken hostage, his main courage coming from the ability to avoid shitting his own pants. The absence of real character (except for maybe a bit of superficial light shading) allows the audience to use this person as our avatar. What would we do in this situation? At the very least, avoid shitting ourselves. All Is Lost feeds this same desire and interest with a leavening of extra gravitas. Men of a certain age, those who find themselves depending on modern medicine just to get through the day and forced to adhere to the demands of a younger generation, will identify with Redford’s inevitable predicament.
For the rest of us, what’s left is a ripping deep sea adventure, with a mostly silent captain using his own ship as a weapon to battle the elements. But to a certain generation, the aging Our Man here is merely a conduit for a tense tragedy. To that older crowd seeking and finding identifiers, this man is looking his end in the face, in a way that suggests he’s done it before, but on his terms only. To a younger one, he’s no more of a chess piece than Jason Voorhees, a plot device to allow for Spartan heroics and derring-do to have a face. Made with real intensity and bravado, All Is Lost is brassy and confident, but it never escapes being the awesome subplot of a far more amazing film. After another repetitive scene involving the application of ropes, you start to think if the “All” of the title is really worth much of anything.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 Out of 5 Stars