J.C. Chandor’s film is a surprisingly unsparing and rigorous piece of work, tinged with an unsentimental fatalism.
“I think you would all agree,” Robert Redford narrates over the start of All Is Lost, “that I tried.” But for a couple muttered curses and some dry-throated shouts, this sentence plus a few others spoken to unknown persons are the sum total of what Redford’s unnamed character says during J.C. Chandor’s movie. Like his Margin Call, the new film shows the filmmaker's precision and calculation. Although the story of All Is Lost might be quickly summarized as a man sailing a yacht in the middle of the ocean runs into trouble, the film doesn't play with form or pad out its running time. There is greatness in this simplicity. If only Redford had been up to the challenge.
That challenge is daunting. Redford is alone on a 39-foot yacht 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits. He is awakened by a crash. A drifting shipping container has smashed into his boat. Water is pouring in through a gash in the side and his communications and navigation equipment is totaled. Following some careful maneuvering, he breaks the yacht free of the container, now spilling its cargo of tennis shoes into the limitless sea. At some point, we know, the yacht will become unusable and then it will just be Redford versus all of the Indian Ocean.
And so, All Is Lost's narrative is more or less predictable: Redford has no one with whom he might argue (as happens in the adventurous cross-Pacific saga Kon-Tiki), no sudden or unlikely radio contact (as does Sandra Bullock in the similarly set up Gravity), no remarkable encounters with a CGIed beast (see: Life of Pi), and, except for that opener, no verbalizing of his thought process. Apparently, he's just about the only person alive who doesn’t talk to himself after long periods of time alone. This makes for long stretches of minimal action on screen: he repairs the boat, he eats, he sleeps, he works on the radio, he sees a storm coming.
But these ostensible limitations rarely diminish the power of what Chandor has accomplished here. He balances strictly controlled and up-close camerawork in calmer scenes with hammering interruptions of roaring winds and mountainous waves. In the daylight scenes, the sailor looks time and again like he has things under control. From the calamity that starts everything, he doesn’t panic. Although the audience will cringe at the sight of ocean water pouring through a gap in a laughably small yacht that’s hundreds of miles from anything, he seems to regard it as an utterly solvable problem.
Redford moves through the film with the stolid determination of a man used to calm decision-making and things going his way. It stands to reason. After all, men of his age piloting yachts through the Pacific don’t tend to be factory workers worried about their 401K. He carries that part of the character superbly. When he digs out a box containing a sextant that appears to be some kind of present for his journey that he never opened, he puts aside the card unread. The flicker of guilt on his face at that moment suggests a world of backstory for the character that’s vivid without being spelled out.
The film gets into rougher territory with its star, though, when the situation becomes progressively more dire. As he is forced to abandon more and more of the things keeping him alive, and the sea makes repeated mockery of his frequently ingenious survival tricks, Redford’s mask of executive competence transitions to a gradual awakening of panic. Unfortunately, his performance doesn't convey this transition in a convincing way, but instead tends toward a worried flatness.
Redford aside, Chandor’s film is a surprisingly unsparing and rigorous piece of work, tinged with an unsentimental fatalism. It doesn’t manufacture drama out of close calls or forced epiphanies. As the sailor fights all elements, All Is Lost fights against the superhero inclinations of a-man-alone dramas. The scenes where he frantically waves flares at massive passing freighters spell out an essential unfairness, unchanged by his efforts or ingenuity. No matter his or even your desires, the film maintains its focus, which in its way, is unpredictable.