By Simon Miraudo
February 3, 2014
The most remarkable feat in J.C. Chandor’s stranded-in-the-sea survival story All Is Lost is star Robert Redford’s ability to shave on open water. Credited only as ‘Our Man,’ here is our first glimpse of how steely this guy’s resolve really is. Good thing, too. He’s going to need it. (Perhaps I was simply impressed because I can’t even shave when I’m a bit anxious or stressed, for fear of a wobbly hand nicking my face.)
Set over eight days, it begins with our unnamed yachtsman awaking to a leak in his boat, having collided with a rogue shipping-container in the dead of night. He works studiously to evacuate the water, repair the hull, and get his damaged radio back in working condition. An incoming storm of biblical proportions will make all of this a supremely frustrating endeavour. The title kind-of gives that away. What it doesn’t reveal, though, is our hero’s tenacity. All is not lost, with the increasingly resourceful captain finding plenty of ways to stay alive over this torturous week. But when one is adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean, these actions might be considered staving off the inevitable. Like Cast Away, and, more recently, Gravity, before it, All Is Lost wonders how long a human can – and should – subject themselves to impossible trials before succumbing to oblivion.
Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call is a curious one. That picture, a modern-day Glengarry Glen Ross, earned the novice writer-director a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Despite an opening journal entry, only a handful of lines are ever uttered during All Is Lost, and one of those is a howled, frustrated “F*******ck!” It’s a testament to Redford’s presence that he can keep us compelled with virtually no dialogue. His once famous boyish good looks these days replaced with an increasingly weathered visage; here, it acts as an evocative map for this enigmatic character, the life and back-story of whom we can only imagine.
Chandor’s direction has vastly improved since making the well-written yet unremarkably helmed Margin Call. The storm sequences are balletic in nature, and almost beautiful in their overwhelming horror. The underwater shots in particular are awe-inspiring. I’m divided, however, as to whether or not All Is Lost needs a little more plot (or character) to hang its hat on. Even with a runtime under two hours, my interest waned on occasion, the understandably repetitive nature of Our Man’s efforts unable to keep me entirely enthralled. As a piece of poetry, All Is Lost is a sparse, Hemingway-inspired marvel. As a film? Sure, it’s cinematic, but it’s also missing that essential filmness; something more tangible and lasting that we can carry with us beyond the undeniable visceral experience of watching it unfold.
All Is Lost plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 3, 2014. It arrives in Australian cinemas March 6.