New to cinemas – 26th December 2013
I’ll get this out of the way first: shipwreck movies are really annoying. Given the sheer size of the ocean, it’s really quite surprising how every single character who has ever been lost at sea in the movies manages to cross paths with a cargo ship a.k.a. the biggest and most recurrent deus ex machina known to man. In All is Lost, the stranded encounters two ships when his life raft (fortunately!!!) floats through the shipping lines to Sumatra and then Madagascar, and due to the fact he figures out beforehand that his route will cross these paths by using celestial navigation, this cliché is what the whole film builds up to.
The difference between All is Lost and most lost-at-sea adventures is that Our Man (Robert Redford) has less help dropped into his lap than most (see Life of Pi’s flying fish and Richard Parkers), instead having to rely on the tools he’s left with. This is slightly more interesting than usual, more so once you take into account Redford’s opening monologue: “I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.” With no back story, this letter (and his wedding ring) is all we have to go on in terms of character development. Our Man is a simple and average man, but he’s our man: the film is working on a much bigger question regarding what mankind deserves when its doom draws near.
All is Lost is therefore more of a post-apocalyptic film than a lost-at-sea adventure, and has an appropriate sense of fatalism to match. When the water starts rushing into the boat, the technology goes first, so all that’s left is Our Man’s efficacy and this is what he must try to survive on. In many ways, Redford’s performance is one of the key drives of the film, ranking among his best and one that could finally win the bloke an Oscar*. Visibly aged and weathered at the beginning of the film, seeing his hope and strength drain out of him inspires sheer desperation, and as the stakes are heightened with every fling of bad luck, the story gets more and more captivating.
Unfortunately I can’t shake how annoyed I was that the film resorted to using the ship cliché, a sudden onslaught of dullness arriving after a long stretch of impressive filmmaking and storytelling; it’s a shame, because otherwise All is Lost is largely absorbing and contains many strong moments along with a few excellent ones. It’s stripped down to the bare essentials, featuring just one character and showing only what happens between the beginning of the shipwreck and the point where, one way or another, the struggle is over. Director J.C. Chandor uses extended shots detailing many trivial moments which are nonetheless gripping given the knowledge that every action counts for Our Man (and it also allows lots of breathing room for a film that could’ve ended up being dramatically suffocating). Practically wordless, All is Lost could be described as abstract, but the basic fear it channels is something that’ll shake just about anyone.
*Post-Oscar nominations release addition: nevermind.