If there are films that made me walk home with some sort of a stark resolution in mind, J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” would definitely fall into that category. And, to be clear, I don’t have anything profound in mind, let alone anything that would influence my world-view in any way. I simply know now that I am not going to get on a boat (or a yacht for that matter) and stay on it for an extended period of time.
Maybe if my life depended on it, but it would still be a tough call…
To elaborate, I don’t necessarily feel that way, because of the intensity and terror one would associate with being stranded in the middle of the ocean on a sinking boat, which nevertheless the film conveys very aptly. What seals the deal for me is the constant, relentless, incessant and nauseating rocking of the damn boat. Now, I have nothing against the use of ‘shaky cam’ and the resultant extremely kinetic photography (with “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” as the most prominent examples), but “All Is Lost” went above and beyond in an effort to portray the extreme realism of a maritime survival story and made me genuinely sea sick. Now that I think about it, it should be seen as an achievement in film-making, but at the time I sure wasn’t feeling comfortable at all, and when halfway through the film a monstrous storm rolled in, I was genuinely terrified I wouldn’t keep my breakfast in.
“All Is Lost” is a very straightforward story about a man (Robert Redford, the only credited actor in the entire film) and his boat. After a drifting shipping container crashes into the side of his yacht and causes the rushing water to destroy the radio and GPS, a truly remarkable adventure begins, where he would face the forces of nature and his own human limitations in this ultimate struggle for survival.
In all seriousness, “All Is Lost” is most probably the simplest film I have ever seen in my life. I can’t possibly imagine the script being more than 5 pages in length, and it is by no means a criticism on my behalf. The film sports exactly three lines of monologue, that’s done with in the opening 20 seconds, A couple of exclamations, and one perfectly placed and emotionally charged F-bomb. Quite honestly, this is how I would imagine a seasoned seaman would deal with the extreme predicament Robert Redford’s character is in – that is in silence. The artistic choice not to include any sort of cliché inner monologues explaining what the protagonist is doing at a particular moment in time works perfectly to elevate the realism of the film.
“All Is Lost” actually challenges the viewer to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what navigation might look like, or how to repair a gaping hole in a boat. The protagonist patiently and methodically follows a logical path and one by one deals with everything the universe throws at him and regardless of how severe things get at times, he acts as if he knew what he was doing all the time. The fact we don’t know anything about him only works in service of the story, I think, because it turns out we don’t really need to see the guy’s family to feel for him and root for his rescue. We can maybe deduce some details about this character based on his age, the clothes he’s wearing, and so on. You might want to look for a ring on his finger and take a nose around the cabin when he’s trying to sort out yet another crisis in an effort to stay alive. You can choose to do that, and I believe a keen eye will catch enough details to put this character in context. I, however, was otherwise engaged breathing steadily and doing everything to watch the film and keep my stomach happy…
I am not exactly sure what to say about the technical aspects of “All Is Lost”, as it is very sparse in the craftsmanship department. In terms of the acting performance, though, Robert Redford deserves some props for his portrayal of this down-to-earth level-headed everyman sailor. He doesn’t say anything at all and his acting is very limited to frowning and calmly responding to whatever comes next, be it a hole in the boat, a tropical storm, or something else entirely. But there’s a greater progression subtly weaved into Redford’s performance, where we get to see how the logic and experience is keeping him alive only to be further tested by the string of unfortunate events nobody could possibly predict.
“All Is Lost” is simply a survival handbook with no decorations and fireworks. Mostly silent, shot almost like a documentary the film lacks any artistic slant and just focuses on what the character is doing. Sure, there are some shallow-depth-of-field shots here and there, but in general, every single second of the film’s running time serves a purpose. The film makes an astounding effort to show what could possibly go wrong in the open ocean, where you don’t have much at your disposal, and how to properly respond to every possible scenario. However, what lies beneath the procedural take on a survival story is the ultimate triumph of perseverance, logic, and human spirit. I sure have learned much from “All Is Lost” in terms of pure survival in the sea, like there are different types of flares for different purposes, and how small the chances are for someone in the distance to actually notice you. But the ultimate take-home message of this film is to always keep calm and follow the plan.
Well, I might be a bit more knowledgeable in the department of maritime survival, at least technically speaking, but I’m pretty sure If I were Robert Redford in “All Is Lost”, I would vomit myself to death days before the shipping container could even get close to my boat. And that, I think, is a valid lesson drawn from a cinematic experience…