Sunday, November 17, 2013

All Is Lost Movie Review

The old man and the sea.
So the post-apocalyptic trend that started the year in cinema has given way to stories of survival – specifically a single survivor persevering against all odds. Gravity and Captain Phillips are now joined by All Is Lost, which sees Robert Redford as the sole cast member in a film about a man fighting against the elements and a damaged sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

When we first meet Our Man (he’s not credited with a name) he’s penning a message in a bottle, a letter to his children apologizing for not doing a better job. He has obviously reached a point where he believes all is lost. Eight days earlier he’s awakened by the crashing sound of a shipping container smashing a hole in the hull of his yacht. From here, the plot is simple: he fixes the hole; he attempts radio communication; he’s tossed about by a storm; loses the boat; sets adrift in a life raft hoping to be rescued in the main shipping lane. Talking about the particulars of what happens in All Is Lost is not nearly as interesting as how Our Man reacts to his increasingly despairing turns of events.

J.C. Chandor wrote and directed the film, which was likely to have been considerably more challenging than his first feature, Margin Call, about an investment bank on the night before their insolvency sets forth the 2008 fiscal crisis. If that movie was about the moment right before this country was set economically adrift, then this one can be read as a continuation of that metaphor. Or you could simply look at it as a dramatic representation of survival at sea and the ultimate test of man versus nature. Gravity informed us that in space there is no sound and nothing can survive. The middle of the ocean is almost equally harsh with the notable exception of having breathable air. But you’re surrounded by water you can’t drink, a sun you can’t hide from, and food you can’t catch. You tell me what’s worse.

Like Gravity, the sound design is essential to the film. Every creek of boards, clang of the mast, slosh of waves, and clap of thunder is the rhythm and the music. There is an instrumental score by Alex Ebert, but it’s intricately woven into the sound effects to create a symbiotic sonic world that carries the drama. Of course Redford is the actor on screen carrying the drama. There is virtually no dialogue excepting an emergency radio call that does nowhere and a well-timed expletive of release when Our Man discovers his fresh water supply has been tainted. It’s a performance composed entirely of gestures, body language, and facial expressions. Redford’s face has a map of the world on it and in it we see his fear, resolve, intellect, disappointment, frustration, and every other emotion you can imagine on a man in his position. It’s such a physically demanding performance as well. Redford obviously does most of the work himself, including climbing the rigging, hanging off the side of the boat in a saddle to make repairs, trudging around in waist-deep water. This is a man in his late 70s engaged in activities that made me tired watching, and I’m less than half his age. And lest you believe there’s a lot of green screen effects, Chandor shot most of the film in the same water tank James Cameron had built for Titanic.

This is about as pure as cinema gets: one character; almost no dialogue; lots of visual action. This is what the medium does best. Chandor seems to have a great instinct for how to most sparingly utilize a visual medium for storytelling. And it’s classic in its structure and premise. It strikes at the heart of what moves mankind forward. We venture out into the great unknown looking to learn something about ourselves. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose (and each person watching this film will have to decide for himself whether or not to take the ending at face value), but we always learn something. Life of Pi was perhaps a more inspiring and colorful “lost at sea” movie, but I’ll take this over that fanciful fairy tale and simpleton allegory any day.

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