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Review: All is Lost (2013)

All is Lost (2013)

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Premise: Robert Redford plays a sailor alone at sea whose boat collides with an adrift shipping container. The damage to the boat and the conditions of the sea force the sailor into a desperate struggle to survive.  

What Works: Hollywood is in the fantasy-making business, whether that’s in spectacular tales of heroism or romantic stories in which the lonely find love and live happily ever after. There’s certainly room for that but it’s also important that there be movies with a more cynical edge and suggest that things are not quite as rosy as we would like to believe. It’s usually fallen to independent filmmakers to be a contrarian counterpoint to Hollywood and in many respects that’s exactly what All is Lost is. This is a film that presents an ordinary man trying his best to survive in conditions that are increasingly oppressive and the way the story develops and the style in which the film is made circumvent the conventions of mainstream filmmaking. One of the extraordinary things about All is Lost is the way it strips away many of the tropes of cinematic storytelling and yet manages to be very entertaining. The movie does not feature a rousing score, it doesn’t use hero shots of the main character, nor does it reaffirm a warm and fuzzy idea of mankind’s relationship with nature. And yet, All is Lost is still very engaging. The movie holds the viewer’s attention because the premise is so primal; Robert Redford’s character is simply trying to survive and the film documents his struggle to do that in an increasingly difficult situation. In that way the filmmakers of All is Lost give the audience a lot of credit. They trust the viewer to figure out the stakes of the situation and what the character is trying to do about it without resorting to contrived expositiory dialogue. All is Lost is able to be remarkable without being spectacular; most of the movie is shot in a plain style and does not resort to dramatic filmmaking techniques. Yet, the movie is frequently beautiful in its plainness and it has a lush sound design that captures the aural sensation of being in the ocean. That powerful simplicity is matched by Robert Redford’s performance. He does not engage in scene chewing and despite being a movie star he plays the role in a very straight forward manner that keeps the character human. That is ultimately what is at the heart of All is Lost. The filmmakers present a human being’s struggle to survive and they do not sugarcoat it with false optimism.

What Doesn’t: All is Lost is an unusual film. Robert Redford is virtually the only cast member in the movie and the filmmakers don’t give him a backstory or even a name. He rarely speaks and much of what he is doing and why is left for the audience to figure out. This is central to what makes All is Lost an extraordinary movie. However, the very thing that distinguishes All is Lost is also going to make it challenging and potentially off-putting to mainstream audiences. Movies about characters in similar situations such as Life of Pi, 127 Hours, and Open Water present stranded or shipwrecked characters in pairs so that they can fill the silence with banter or the filmmakers use voiceover to give their cast an internal life. All is Lost does not include those flourishes and so the film is a pensive viewing experience. That’s appropriate to the story premise. The isolation of Redford’s character is part of his predicament and the drama is found in the gradual evaporation of his options, leaving him with less and less he can do to save himself. The slow burn of the narrative is the point of the picture. But All is Lost is nevertheless a challenging movie for mainstream audiences because it’s so far afield from what many viewers have been conditioned to expect.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes.

Bottom Line: All is Lost is the kind of film that challenges what audiences expect from the movies and from storytelling in general. The picture is excellently made and has a terrific performance by Robert Redford but it is the quiet dread of the movie that makes it unnerving and memorable.

Episode: #496 (June 22, 2014)