by Matt Levine
An adventure movie pared down to the bare essentials, All Is Lost encounters a man face-to-face with mortality, desperately trying to ward off imminent death. At what point, the film asks, is our instinct to survive suffocated by all-consuming hopelessness? Survival stories are, of course, essentially about human beings inching towards decimation, but in the case of All Is Lost—a movie featuring only a single character, about whom we know practically nothing—that microscopic evaluation of human desperation is even more acute.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Howard Cohen, Eric d’Arbeloff, Cassian Elwes, Corey Moosa, Justin Nappi, Zachary Quinto, Laura Rister, Teddy Schwarzman, Kevin Turen
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Cinematographers: Frank G. DeMarco & Peter Zuccarini
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
Music: Alex Ebert
Cast: Robert Redford
Premiere: May 22, 2013 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Theatrical Release: October 18, 2013
US Distributors: Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions
It helps that he’s played Robert Redford, whose familiarity with audiences who remember him as Jeremiah Johnson or the Sundance Kid thankfully garners some sympathy for a character that remains a cipher. Redford's lone, nameless sailor wears a wedding ring and pilots a boat named the Virginia Jean, but beyond that we know nothing about him; if we want to try to understand the kind of person he is or glean some kind of hypothetical backstory, we have to decode each wincing expression, each desperate gesture, as clues to unlock his character.
Some have criticized this minimalist characterization, claiming we can’t sympathize with a protagonist so abstruse; but it seems to me that this stripped-down approach to character perfectly meshes with the movie’s emphatic simplicity, which allows us to see Redford as a more abstract emblem for human nature itself. The film’s theme might be summed up in three words: humanity versus mortality. Through Redford’s character, performance is deemphasized and existence predominates—if Robert Bresson had made a seabound survival film, would it have looked like this?
The analogy probably sounds ludicrous, even if J.C. Chandor, through only two features, has revealed himself as one of the most exciting young directors in the US. His previous film, 2011’s Margin Call, is an intelligent and provocative depiction of the first stages of Wall Street’s 2008 financial meltdown, though the movie seems overwritten: most of the dialogue sounds like it was written by a screenwriter, rather than uttered by flesh-and-blood people. Chandor defiantly avoids the same mistake with All Is Lost, a film that features about three lines and two minutes of dialogue in its entirety. Margin Call was an impressive debut, but All Is Lost is literally awe-inspiring, not to mention radically different. Both films attest to Chandor’s confidence and versatility.
Bresson, though, wasn’t the only esteemed name that improbably came to mind during All Is Lost; surprising (if implicit) similarities also link the film to Herzog, Tarr, even Chantal Akerman. The film shares with Werner Herzog (especially in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Encounters at the End of the World) a reverential awe at the force of nature and the absurdity of men who try to conquer it. As Redford’s character, nearly without water on a slowly leaking life raft, drifts morbidly on the Indian Ocean, it’s hard not to think of a deranged Aguirre being sucked down the Amazon, accompanied only by an army of screeching monkeys (though All Is Lost may be slightly more optimistic about its victim’s salvation).
Much of the film audaciously documents Redford’s tedious yet vital activities in order to repair his boat and survive cataclysmic monsoons: fixing masts, patching over holes, clearing the hull and bilge of water and debris. There is a scene in which we literally watch salt evaporate from water, somehow incredibly thrilling. Such monotony in the face of extermination recalls, conceptually if not stylistically, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011): there are no seven-minute long static shots of potato-peeling in All Is Lost, but both movies essentially deal with the gloomy weight of practically any action when death looms before you. And in prolonging such unspectacular activities onscreen, even while a morbid sense of finality courses under every scene, Chandor places great emphasis on the ability for mere extended (yet intense) observation to wield insights into character and action, employing an extreme simplicity akin to Chantal Akerman’s rigorous aesthetic in Jeanne Dielman, for example (though the gender politics are obviously wholly different). To be sure, All Is Lost’s middle-ground between an austere arthouse aesthetic and semi-mainstream entertainment softens some of its ascetic edges, but it’s rare to see such existential themes and rigorous stylistic choices employed so boldly in a wide release. Earlier this year, Gravity was heralded for employing some of the characteristics of experimental movies (Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine called it “a La Région Centrale you could still take Grandma to see”), but All Is Lost adopts the features of abject minimalism much more thoroughly and brazenly.
The movie’s tenuous position between the arthouse and the multiplex is borne out by its ending, which isn’t exactly satisfying but couldn’t have been any other way. I’ll leave out specifics, but All Is Lost’s ambiguous final moments might say more about each individual viewer’s faith in humanity and our (in)ability to overcome a foreboding natural world than anything else. If the film is at least partially about how people envision and confront their own mortality, then it’s only fitting that that sobering investigation is ultimately reflected onto the audience. It’s not especially rare for survival stories to thrillingly portray humanity’s possibly futile attempt to vanquish death; it is, however, rare for any kind of movie to convey the terrible weight of mortality and the aching crawl of time as powerfully as All Is Lost.