How Does One Go On When 'All Is Lost'?

J.C. Chandor’s film is a surprisingly unsparing and rigorous piece of work, tinged with an unsentimental fatalism.

All Is Lost

Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-18 (Limited release)

“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.






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.