Survivalist tales at the movies are kind of tricky to execute because you are basically asking the audience to invest in a lone protagonist up against the unpredictable perils of a natural disaster. The film needs to command the attention span of its viewers if a character study of adverse proportions were to steer the right kind of physical, emotional, mental and psychological torment. It is a gamble in cinema when conveying the overwhelming sentiment of ‘man vs. the world’. This kind of reflective theme can either be majestic in scope or misguided in its well-intentioned message.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s (‘Margin Call’) ‘All Is Lost’ presents such a revealing commentary about one man’s isolated madness into the foray of nature-related chaos and the fortitude of resilience for him to tackle such a dire predicament. Legendary golden boy Robert Redford stars as ‘Our Man’ …the aging watery warrior out to take us on such an adventurous journey turned nautical nightmare. Intentionally stripped of any characterization backstory, minimal dialogue and the obligatory elements of disastrous struggles thrown at every turn ‘All Is Lost’ wants to find the suspenseful impact in its lingering hopelessness.
Although quite riveting in its visual execution with a pronounced performance of quiet despair and detachment from the iconic late seventy-something Redford, ‘All Is Lost’ feels somewhat strained by its repetitive follow-the-dots sequences of caustic occurrences. The constant and intense rainstorms, excessive flooding, mechanical malfunctions, ship wreckage, blood-thirsty sharks, lack of food and contaminated water are all credible situational obstacles in a frenzied tale of survival. Still, this feels all so staged in contrivance to manufacture the tension-filled action to lift this thinking man’s suspense piece from becoming a total borefest. However, Redford is no stranger to big screen survival stories (ie the wilderness saga ‘Jeremiah Johnson’) or his penchant for embracing the natural environment (one of the actor/filmmaker’s committed real-life passions). Nevertheless, ‘All Is Lost’ is effectively profound in its sophisticated edginess with Redford as its designated soulful engineer.
Chandor does not want us to get sidelined by Redford’s leading man’s personalised details as we barely know anything about his past or all that he has separated from at this point in his shipwrecked status at sea. ‘Our Man’ is planted out in the middle of the India Ocean sailing aimlessly until tragedy strikes. Why is he out there sailing alone in the first place? Is he affluent to even have a crafty yacht to sail in such an exotic body of water? What is his darn name? What does he do for a living? Does he possess an experienced seaman’s background which explains his ship-mending skills?
The film does provide a voice-over prelude of the disillusioned yachtsman as he writes a letter of apology to his family for whatever unknown reason we are not sure about in content. Interestingly, ‘Our Man’ does not utter a single word throughout the majority of the film although we are treated to distress calls from the ship’s mangled radio and some reassuring sounds from the human contact that is foreign to the endangered skipper at this time.
Along with Redford’s befuddled seaman, we start to piece together what went wrong, thus allowing us to walk in his frustrated footsteps. From the time he woke up and discovered a huge leaking hole in his boat to his dutiful calmness in repairing the damage, we certainly know how smart and resourceful Redford’s unknown alter-ego is at heart. Of course ‘Our Man’ has to be repeatedly challenged by the nagging rigors of his dire circumstances as the aforementioned raging storms tests his patience whenever he seems to overcome a problematic hurdle. It is the typical case of our harried hero taking three steps forward but then taking six steps backward in his bid to tackle the impossible odds.
Armed with the occasional strokes of dullness, ‘All Is Lost’ makes up for the dragged-out moments when Redford’s focused physicality (particularly utilising his rugged-looking face) and instinctual handling of separate on-the-spot emergencies with the harsh weather elements in what could be a watery grave displays how exhausting but disciplined his durable turn is in this low-key aquatic actioner. The tranquility and turmoil are skillfully distributed and Chandor gives Redford the opportunity to showcase how vital and vulnerable this man can be when facing the mortality of his contemplative conflicts. The combination of a man’s naked convictions and the mystique of the open sea could have been woefully clichéd and overstated. Thankfully, ‘All Is Lost’ is redeemed by Chandor’s solid, experimental direction and Redford’s stirring portrayal of a wounded sea-bound explorer out in the middle of a water-logged wonderland where the thought of having any distinctive identity is not that important in the scheme of trying to exist at any cost.
‘All Is Lost’ can be tedious to watch at times but its metaphoric overtones about crisis-driven alienation and determination will certainly float one’s boat.
All is Lost (2013)
1 hr. 46 mins.
Starring: Robert Redford
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Action & Adventure
Critic’s rating: ** 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)