A man – alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean – wakes to find the hull of his yacht has been breached by a shipping container adrift. The seawater has leaked in and destroyed the electronic equipment the man (Robert Redford) uses to navigate and, more vitally, to pump the water from the boat. Without panic, or fuss, the man disengages his yacht, stops to retrieve his sea anchor and tackle, and then sets about patiently repairing the damage, even as tropical storms brew on the horizon. He will face a struggle for survival in which he will be stripped bare of everything but his stoicism, cunning and ingenuity.
J.C. Chandor’s film at first seems like a complete departure from Margin Call (2011), his financial crisis-dissecting 24-hour drama. In that film, tension is built on talk, as a piece of crucial information is passed steadily upstairs via one explanation after another. However, for all the yada-yada, talk is relatively cheap. Words are used to evade, seduce, cheat and betray. As deadly as silk dipped in arsenic, Jeremy Irons – playing the CEO John Tuld – gives such a persuasive explanation for the crisis to Kevin Spacey that he manages to persuade even the audience, who are still living with the consequences of the greed and irresponsibility of CEOs like him. So in a way, the decision to dispense with dialogue in All is Lost is perhaps more consistent than it at first seems. The unnamed man is obviously wealthy, but he is detached from the world and has some obvious regrets, which grow as his world becomes significantly more elusive. Although this might be a push, his attempt at some kind of ideal of individual freedom is endangered by the invasion of the wild and the free spaces by the corporate. The container spills high-priced, cheaply-made trainers into the indifferent seas. It is this banality that might, in the end, kill him.
The man – unlike Tuld and his ilk – is in a predicament not of his making. His boat is well supplied for every contingency, and what skills the man does not already possess – and he seems to be more than an able seaman – he is willing to learn, pulling down a book on celestial navigation and getting down to some serious study as soon as he has the time. This could well be the performance of Robert Redford’s career. The vanilla-flavoured actor has become increasingly bland and gauzy with age, playing off the memory of better films and, unlike Clint Eastwood or the late Paul Newman, unwilling to accept and play to his age. Even in the forgettable The Company You Keep (2012), he has a crazily young daughter. Here, finally, age becomes part of the character, as the well-kept man slowly falls to pieces under the unrelenting physical struggle, the beating sun, the deprivation and salt water. Redford’s performance is unshowy. His character is lost (and found) in the pains, excitements and pleasures of just doing things. His emotional inner life is expressed by a small gesture, the retrieving of a personal item, a small sign of pique, the sight of him shaving carefully as he awaits a storm that he knows is approaching and might well take his life.
This is an action film in which the actions are all vitally important, unlike most action films in which a law of diminishing returns sees the explosion of the world itself as a ho-hum eventuality. All is Lost is the kind of action film a young Hemingway might have directed, should he have turned his hand to it. It is a small film that is underwritten by the epic nature of life and death and the ocean. Without words, it avoids saying anything: there are no audience surrogates (think Wilson in Cast Away, 2000), no monologues (aside from an opening prologue) and no prayers. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, All is Lost is a film that very eloquently provides an argument for the survival of heroes, or at least one hero.
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