After this year’s festival season kicked off over Labor Day weekend in Telluride, it became increasingly apparent that Robert Redford was en route to a praise-filled fall. Redford, an actor who hardly needs a career boost, stars in director J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, the story of a self-sufficient man who runs out of resources when the hull of his sailboat is punctured by a stray cargo container loaded with sneakers, trivial cast-offs from a voracious commercial society.
All Is Lost — a film featuring almost no dialogue — showcases Redford’s ability to play a character who’s forced to determine how to deal with impending disaster. The character — unnamed in the movie and known in the credits only as Our Man — improvises a series of life-saving tasks that begin with patching the hole in his yacht.
PG-13 for brief strong language
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Ultimately, he must determine how (without a radio, cell phone or other equipment that has been wiped out by flooding) he’s going to make his way toward a shipping lane where he might be sighted by a passing vessel.
The movie’s brief prologue establishes enough of a backstory to give All Is Lost an allegorical aftertaste. We hear our man reading a note that no one else may ever see. He apologizes — presumably to his family — for badly over-estimating how much of the Indian Ocean he could navigate by himself. He’s failed, and, this time, his failure might be irredeemable.
Our Man is an independent fellow of obvious means (who else has a sailboat and the time to sail it?), and, if there’s a larger thematic point to this seaborne fable, it probably revolves around the ways in which the screenplay methodically deprives Our Man — perhaps he should be seen as a floating ego — of every possible support. When there’s nothing material left to keep him afloat does anything else remain? Is this the story of an adventure gone wrong or a chronicle about the death knell of male movie stars?
Credibility is mildly disturbed by the fact that Our Man seems to find time to shave everyday, although we only see him shaving once. It also seemed to me that even the most self-possessed of men eventually would start talking to themselves, a la Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Piscine Patel in Life of Pi.
Worse yet, Alex Ebert’s distracting score should have been scrapped; the movie is most effective when it’s making use of the natural sounds created by the ocean, the foundering ship and the occasional storms that beset it.
Although it never comes up in the film, I wondered about calling the main character “Our Man.” Unless there’s irony intended, the guy we meet in this voyage isn’t a character easily linked to everyone’s delusions about self-sufficiency in the face of mortality.
We all may be victims of the kind of self-deception that tells us that we know how to make our way through the perilous storms and yawning vastness each of us eventually confronts. But the guy in this film isn’t Our Man. He’s a member of a privileged class in which few of us claim membership.
You might argue that this makes his plight (and the movie’s point) all the more poignant. Even the most skilled and most affluent among us can’t protect themselves from the vicissitudes of fate and from the potentially lethal flotsam of a supremely careless society.
But I watched Redford’s character from the outside. All Is Lost isn’t a movie of high identification, but of studied observation.
Still, it takes plenty of directorial and acting skill to keep us involved in a one-character drama — especially if that drama is taking place on a 39-foot yacht, where a lone man faces extinction.
For his part, Chandor has taken a totally opposite direction from his talky but effective debut, Margin Call. And you have to credit both Chandor and Redford with doing what we critics always seem to be insisting on: Trying something new and a little daring.
I leave it to you to decide whether All Is Lost should be seen as a stripped-down story with universal applications or a cinematic curiosity that’s notable mostly for bobbing bravely on a sea that’s otherwise cluttered with escapist junk.