A film review by Craig J. Koban December 6,  2013

RANK:  #10

ALL IS LOST jjjj
 

2013, R, 106  mins.

Robert Redford as Our Man

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor

ALL IS LOST is one of the most harrowing human survival films that Iíve ever seen.  It not only reiterates why its 77-year-old star, Robert Redford, is one of the greatest of all actors, but it also establishes 39-year-old writer/director J.C. Chandor as one of the preeminent filmmakers working today.  

His last film, the terribly underrated MARGIN CALL, was a thoroughly intoxicating ensemble drama that served as a commentary piece for the 2008 Financial Crisis.  ALL IS LOST could not be anymore different as far as sophomore film efforts go: it has but one cast member, is told virtually dialogue-free, and focuses ostensibly on one man being lost at sea.  A near wordless film showcasing Redford acting opposite of no one seems more like a daring stunt than a fully realized film, but thereís no mistaking the hypnotic power of ALL IS LOST; itís mesmerizing because of its stark simplicity. 

Redford plays a man with no name (at least his name is never revealed throughout the course of the film) and no attempt is made whatsoever to provide him with a backstory.  In essence, we know and learn absolutely nothing about who this person is or where he came from, which makes for an endlessly compelling artistic choice.  A biographical portrait of him would have perhaps proven unnecessarily distracting.  All that matters in ALL IS LOST is that itís a primal journey into seeing this human being emotionally and physically battered by his attempts to save his own life and get rescued while stuck out in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Man versus nature stories are as old as the cinema itself, but ALL IS LOST treads more intimately and psychologically deeper into the survivorís mindset than most other similar films.  Moreover, the film reveals how even the most stoic and inwardly strong of men can be broken down by elements that are not working in his favor. 

 

 

The film opens on a yacht somewhere in the Indian Ocean, as Redfordís character is quickly awoken to the sound of something making contact with his vessel.  Water begins to pour into his cabin and sleeping quarters.  When he reaches the deck he notices that the front of his ship as struck an abandoned cargo container and has caused severe damage.  Interestingly, he does not go into feverous panic mode, but instead takes it all in stride, gathers what implements he has, and begins to work on repairing the hole to ensure that the yacht does not sink.  Clearly, the film implies that this is a person with vast experience in boats and sailing, which is reiterated by his remarkably strong poise and demeanor in dealing with this situation. 

Using some MacGyver-like intuition, the man does repair the damage, but things go south really fast when a massive storm Ė as virtuoso of a action sequence of any Iíve seen Ė swoops in and wreaks further havoc on his ship.  It soon becomes clear that his industrious repairs may not hold up and, yes, that his ship will inevitably go down.  Still, he remains steadfastly calm considering the dire situation he finds himself in; he has no other choice.  Emotionally caving in would prove to be the final nail in his coffin, so the man decides to abandon ship and test his luck with a few supplies and rations on an inflatable lifeboat.  As if God is pathetically testing the poor man yet again, another storm brews on the horizon, but this time he does not have a relatively sturdy boat to protect him from the hellish elements.  His hope and determination to get through all of this starts to waneÖbut he nonetheless does not give up. 

Chandor knows his way around this film with the precision and skill of a director of twice his maturity.  The film Ė sans a few lines of dialogue by Redford (including a very brief voiceover track to open the film) Ė does not really require any words, per say.  ALL IS LOST tracks the progress of one man and his solitary mission to stave off hunger, thirst, and mental and physical exhaustion.  A film like this does not need any dialogue to relay the fragility of the human condition when placed against insurmountable odds.  All we need to see is the man use his wits and a whole lot of intestinal fortitude to brace for what nightmarish circumstance comes next.  Again, knowing whom this person is and/or where he came from is almost superfluous.  The invigorating power of ALL IS LOST is in its straightforward exploration of this manís plight. 

Robert Redford iconic stature in the annals of cinema hardly needs any embellishment.  I have always admired his performances without outright thinking that heís one of the most indispensably talented actors of all-time, maybe because he gives such deceptively low-key and lived-in performances.  For a man approaching 80, Redford still seems impossibly Ė but naturally Ė handsome as a rugged leading man presence, but thatís precisely why heís a pitch-perfect fit for this material.  Chandor understands and plays off of Redfordís inherent strengths as an actor; the way he commands and holds our attention with his serenely calm disposition, or the way he conveys a vast network of emotions with a simple close-up.  Redford certainly has aged, but aged well, and his grizzled exterior makes him oddly more fascinating as an actor than perhaps when he was younger and more pristinely attractive.  

Not only does Redford give a completely plausible physical performance Ė he does a majority of his own stunts here, amazing considering his age Ė but there is also rarely a moment when you donít buy into the emotional credibility of his character.  You believe this manís tenacious grit early on and feel for him when he breaks down under the pressures of his ordeal.  This is one of the most quietly commanding performances he has ever given, and itís such a rare sight to behold when a bravura performance compliments faultless directionÖand vice-versa.  Chandor also manages to capture the spectacular vastness of the ocean that surrounds Redfordís character throughout the film, which comes off as both exquisitely beautiful and forebodingly dangerous at the same time.  

ALL IS LOST is not a flashy film on a visual level, per se, like the effects heavy LIFE OF PI Ė but it has the same lasting sense of simmering authenticity about it.  Thereís not one scene in ALL IS LOST that feels like itís the product of soundstage or greenscreen work, and itís a testament to Chandorís attention to detail and his overall craftsmanship.  Perhaps the filmís greatest effect is, yes, itís sole performance by Redford, whose Oscar nomination level work here completely anchors viewers during the entirety of its running time.  Actors approaching the tail end of their legendary careers usually are not known for taking chances and risks, but what Redford does here is certainly a calculate gamble that pays off tremendously.  I thought that GRAVITY was the yearís most toweringly spellbinding film about human survival; ALL IS LOST certainly gives Alfonso Cauronís effort a run for its money.   

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