There’s something inherently cumbersome about a movie where a solitary individual battles nature, notably the possible tedium of one actor in one location for one hundred minutes straight. To overcome this dilemma, many filmmakers take liberties that I’ve always been somewhat critical of. 127 Hours, for instance, utilized both flashbacks and hallucinations to sidestep the banality of its main character spending the whole movie trapped under a rock. Cast Away famously personified a volleyball so Tom Hanks would have a scene partner, of sorts. Even the recent space-thriller Gravity employed expositional monologues to help viewers follow the heroine’s astronautic activities. Similarly, All Is Lost is an existential drama about a yachter who shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean, but unlike its forebears, it takes no shortcuts. Though watching doesn’t require sailing knowledge, it certainly helps, because the movie is more or less a silent picture. Whether the protagonist is scaling the mast, reworking the rigging, whittling a broom handle to manually bail the cabin, or gathering freshwater with a makeshift condensation apparatus, we’re not afforded a single word of explanatory dialogue. This way, writer/director JC Chandor not only repurposes the protagonist’s tacit nautical aptitude into a kind of absorbing narrative austerity; he demands that viewers try to understand the yachter’s behavior, if they want to understand him.
To enhance this strategy, Chandor wisely omits the conventional sappy back-story. A cryptic epistolary prologue provides the only smidgen of context. Afterward, the movie begins in earnest as the lone captain (Robert Redford) awakes to discover that his vessel has collided with a floating metal crate. It’s punctured a shoebox-sized gape in the hull, allowing seawater to flood the cabin and destroy the communication equipment. Any forewarning about the massive squall heading his way is therefore obstructed; it arrives and damages the ship irreparably. The seasoned boater must then incorporate every trick of the trade to survive. In an arduous one-man-show, Redford ably exhibits the guile and stamina necessary to appear authentically sea-savvy. Compared to his contemporaries (like Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and Marlon Brando), Redford always seemed less talented, a pretty boy rather than a true thespian. Over the years, he’s received more acclaim behind the camera than in front of it. At seventy-seven years old, Redford’s renowned good looks have softened and wrinkled. He now possesses more intrinsic character than before—the kind of hard-earned wisdom and life-beaten weariness that older performers carry with them like many heavy suitcases. Redford delivers a career-best performance because, for the first time, he makes a thoroughly convincing everyman. That quality is paramount when it becomes clear that he is indeed playing the metaphorical every man.
Considering how the Academy loves to honor longtime members, Redford may finally win a competitive acting Oscar. It’s true Hollywood isn’t generally known for its sympathy, but compared to the unforgiving ocean it’s practically the Salvation Army. During All Is Lost, as calamities mounted, I realized I was watching a fatalistic allegory about humanity’s continuous efforts to outsmart nature. The hero unveils several gizmos and gadgets and exercises various tactics for every obstacle. But no matter what canny solution he produces, the sea only reacts more viciously. In a way, Chandor touches on what philosophers call “the absurdity of existence”—or how in a world of ceaseless predicaments, seeming randomness, and impending doom, we struggle to maintain some semblance of comforting order and civilization. When the captain shaves in anticipation of the aforementioned squall, it seems at once pointless and honorable, like a soldier shining his boots before a suicide mission. His yacht is romantically christened the Georgia Jean (perhaps after his wife or daughter), but it floats atop a vast, emotionless abyss. Chandor frequently inserts cutaways of sea-life, tranquil and harmonious, dancing effortlessly in hypnotic patterns. Above, the man battles valiantly to remain divorced from them. All Is Lost is the most purified man-versus-the-elements movie ever, because it shows how we resist nature by refusing to admit that we’re a part of it.