For some reason I was expecting Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity to be almost as spare as All Is Lost, though not quite. I actually don’t know if Gravity would work if it dialed back its dialogue that much. The vast majority of All Is Lost is carried forward without dialogue, without names, without anything that would serve as an orienting principle for a character arc or obvious emotional trajectories. We’re simply stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean with an unnamed person simply credited as “Our Man,” and he’s played by Robert Redford. The driving story: survive.
Given all that, I find something a little more daring about All Is Lost when compared to Gravity, but then again, a small production like this can risk this sort of austerity for art’s sake. There are maybe twenty-five sentences uttered in the film, if even that. What’s surprising is how much of All Is Lost works for its minimalist gambit, at least in terms of its execution of the idea.
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All Is Lost
Director: J.C. Chandor
Release Date: October 18th, 2013
In some ways, All Is Lost is like a nautical and less absurd version of “Duck Amuck.” Some devious sea gods must be at play, tossing Redford around the high seas for several days. There’s a handful of brief respites followed by more bad-to-worse scenarios. First Our Man’s boat hits a shipping container lost at sea, and then his equipment doesn’t work, and then there’s rough weather, and then worse stuff happens. It’s almost comical even though it’s played straight, and once or twice Redford seems to mug at the camera in semi-tickled disbelief — the universal expression for “Wait, are you f**king kidding me?” Yet Our Man does his best to endure, and he does it with a certain kind of dignity, but how long can it last and what will cause despair to set in?
The minimalism calls attention to the main character for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, Our Man serves as an everyman. Without a discernable past or present, without an actual name, he’s a man as symbol for all people. His struggle to survive against the forces of nature is the primal stuff of the human condition throughout history. Even the muteness of Our Man seems to suggest an open space for symbolic contemplation. Our Man is outside of time, outside of nationality, in the water, on his own. The audience is allowed to attach whatever thematic or philosophical or religious ideas they’d like onto Our Man since he’s a blank canvas about the will to live.
And yet Our Man is also Robert Redford, who is anything but a blank. So while there’s a space for the blankness of Our Man as an everyman, there’s also Our Man as The Man. As The Man, we attach onto Our Man all the things that we can think of when it comes to Robert Redford’s career. There’s the ups and the downs, there’s his current age (77) and what it means for an older superstar like him to take this kind of role, there’s the association with Sundance and that 90s indie spirit (appropriate given that this is a low-budget film partaking of some of that spirit). Our Man may not have a biography, but The Man’s biography affects the read of the film. This isn’t a bad thing but a fascinating case of solid casting meets stunt casting.
Chandor tosses Our Man through the roiling waters of night. He flips Our Man around. He nearly drowns Our Man several times. Our Man gets bumped, bruised, he aches, he bails water, he keeps going. When it works, it works, though I sensed a sort of weariness in my experience of all this that wasn’t necessarily empathy with Our Man. Part of it is the consistent, unbroken pattern of bad-to-worse in the script. While I didn’t know the exacts, I could glean the general direction of the plot, and so the last third of the film seemed a little looser, a little less tense and immediate. It’s odd to say, but I think some budgetary constraints may have robbed a few sequences of the impact they could have had, though the film does close with a rather poetic splendor that was lacking in the minutes leading up to it.
I may be one of the few critics who doesn’t find Redford’s performance to be the tour de force it’s been hyped as. He’s good, but does consistent goodness turn the performance into greatness? It’s a performance about a smart sailor’s stoic determination to survive, and Redford faces so many of the events in All Is Lost with a concentrated look of stoic determination. There are breaks in this even-keeled role — determined surprise, stoic fear, determined inspiration mixed with stoicism, stoic unconsciousness — and those are good, but there’s something missing that I can’t quite pinpoint, so I wasn’t too moved or so impressed. I felt as if I just went along with it, and it was all right.
This may come back to the distinction between Our Man as an everyman and Our Man as The Man. Viewing Our Man as The Man, this is the best performance Robert Redford’s had in years, and because it’s such a blank character, it’s arguably his most interesting role as well — in other words, he didn’t just show up and be Robert Redford playing the Robert Redford part in a movie. Viewing Our Man as an everyman, the performance is almost as blank as the sobriquet, but that makes sense. What’s most important for Our Man is the need to continue fighting, and playing that role effectively, there’s nothing that screams “tour de force” so much as silently embodies “will to live.”
I wonder how I’d feel about the performance if someone else played Our Man just the same, but the oddest thing about All Is Lost is that now I can’t see anyone else besides Redford in the role.