Review: All Is Lost (2013)

I can’t think of a film as pure as All Is Lost. When Gravity was about to be released, many critics were touting it as a pure example of cinema. But for all of Gravity’s simplicity, it is full of bluster, a blaring score, loud performances and the panic of space that drives every moment. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster, full of effects and manipulation and intense calculation on how to make the audience feel at every moment.

On the other hand, All Is Lost is quiet. It is so matter of fact about its narrative, it reminded me of a Hemingway short story. When a cargo crate rams into his sailboat and bores a hole in the side, Robert Redford’s unnamed man doesn’t freak out like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. He goes to work methodically, fixing the hole and doing what he can to prepare for the oncoming storm. It’s not until late in the film the man betrays any explicit frustration. He’s restrained. Why would he talk? Who would he talk to?

The entirety of All Is Lost takes place at sea. We are never introduced to this character like we are to Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks) in Captain Phillips. Here, action is character. Narrative is movement. This is elemental filmmaking. Director J.C. Chandor understands that exposition is not necessary to tell a story—especially a story you watch unfold before your eyes. We are introduced to the man when a crate rams into his boat and leaves a hole. We stick with him through the inevitable fixing of the hole. We watch him suffer through a typhoon. We are with him at every critical moment of his solitary life at sea.

As the solitary man, Robert Redford is fascinating. I would disagree with many critics and say that inhabiting the screen for the entirety of a film’s running time is not as hard for an actor as suggested, especially an actor of Redford’s calibre and reputation. That said, he still gives a fantastic performance. The reasons for this are not that he leaves the audience emotionally wounded from watching him deal with such rigged circumstances. What makes Redford’s performance fantastic is that we see the full scope of a human being on display.

Despite the fact that the only hint of a backstory for his character is the letter he writes to some loved ones, which we hear in voice over narration at the beginning of the film, we understand this man. There’s the classic writing notion that action reveals character. There’s also the notion that crises reveal the true nature of a person. All Is Lost combines these two truths and rests the entirety of its lead character on them. The way Redford’s man deals with the situations confronting him tells us all we need to know about the character. It encapsulates his essence. In the credits, Redford is labeled "Our Man." How right.

As for the thematic concerns, it’s for people more obsessed with symbolism than me to decipher the hidden meanings of the film. I admire All Is Lost for its formalistic purity. I lack the drive and the tools to investigate its symbolism. I’m reminded of commentary on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. An interviewer commented on the layered symbolism in the novella, about how the old man is a Christ figure and so forth. Hemingway calmly responded that any symbolism was unintentional. I feel that any symbolism beyond making the film an elemental tale of survival was not at the front of Chandor’s mind when making All Is Lost. It’s for the critics to access that level of meaning, and as a filmmaker who doubles as a critic, I’m more interested in the form of the messages than the hidden meaning itself.

I’m most fascinated with All Is Lost because it’s a film that tells one story systematically from beginning to end and in excruciating detail. That it resists the urges of subplots and backstory and exposition and obvious structural payoffs is unconventional. There may be buried profundity to All Is Lost, but there’s an obvious profoundness to the way it conveys one man’s struggle for survival. That such simplicity can be so fascinating is unique to the cinema.

All Is Lost proves that the value of a film lies in how it tells its story, not entirely in the story itself. The story of All Is Lost can be summarized in one line: a man is shipwrecked far out to sea. Now try summarizing the filmmaking of All Is Lost in one line. You can’t.

The simplicity of All Is Lost speaks multitudes because its simplicity is daringly complex.

9 out of 10

All Is Lost (2013, USA)

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Robert Redford.