All is lost and nothing gained in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s one-man, high-seas survival saga in which Robert Redford plays the lone occupant of a beleaguered yacht crippled in the Indian Ocean. Known in the credits only as Our Man, the traveler spends the movie’s 105-minute running time just trying to stay alive as, first, his yacht then the lifeboat to which he has to retreat fall apart. It sounds like a terrific existentialist adventure story and perhaps an inquiry into why we choose life over death, into our impulse to survive despite the universe conspiring against us. But the 31-page outline from which Chandor directed provides only the scaffolding for a more ambitious movie; the scant script, for what it is, gives the Cliffs Notes version of the deeper, more profound character study that never transpires on-screen.
To their credit, Chandor and his cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini maintain steady control of what we see. There is an admirable barebones quality to the film’s aesthetic: Mostly, we watch Our Man go about repairing his yacht after it suffers a collision with an abandoned shipping container, detail by detail, from sizing up the situation and pumping out the seawater to patching the hole in the side of his yacht and making fixes to the mast. We relish these details purely out of the novelty of watching a yachtsman tending to his vessel.
But Our Man’s lot turns for the worse–and doesn’t stop turning in that direction for the duration of the movie–after a storm destroys the yacht and nearly kills him. The storm sequence is harrowing, visually thrilling at times, and I really found myself pulling for Our Man out of a simple knee-jerk sense of sympathy for a given story’s protagonist. The remainder of All Is Lost is spent in a deteriorating life raft as Our Man learns to navigate his way into the local trade routes and hailing down a passing container ship. Again, as a beat-by-beat examination of details, this is sturdy, watchable filmmaking.
The problems, though, begin with Chandor and Redford’s scant–there’s that word again–treatment of their lone character. It’s not that we know few circumstantial details about him–his family, where he’s from, why he left civilization–these details don’t matter much in comparison to what drives his heart and soul, his inner life. Redford is an eminent screen figure so I found myself giving him a lot of slack as I found myself straining to understand his character, to read (possibly too much) into every little morsel of information for signals of that inner life: What he ate, drank, how he dressed, how he slept, and to decipher every facial expression for something, anything. A detail I greatly enjoyed was how he shaves (calmly? spitefully?) while a possibly deadly storm brews outside–I found that bit fascinating–but, beyond that, there’s nowhere near the exploration of his character, which needed to be as generous as the ocean surrounding him.
I’m not saying we needed more dialogue or exposition. I mean that Chandor and Redford could’ve been craftier and more tantalizing in what they revealed of Our Man. Reveal, like the layers of that proverbial onion, what his heartbreaks have been, what his soul pines for through the details revealed when he thinks you’re not watching: The books he reads, letters, photos, visible tattoos, anything that could offer us a way in and a reason why this man has chosen exile over suicide. As is, Our Man is a blank: nearly expressionless (except for one awkward, too-little-too-late outburst), and, as viewers, we struggle to care much whether he lives or dies.
Chandor’s previous credit was the interesting but very prosaic drama about the Wall Street financial scandal, Margin Call. It was a talky, visually flat affair. All Is Lost, meanwhile, required radically new skill sets: a wholly different artistic temperament and a fluency with the medium that ultimately Chandor doesn’t have. This story needed a filmmaker with a commanding talent at depicting physical struggle–Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway is the far better option if you want to see an against-the-elements survival drama. Chandor doesn’t have the stature and isn’t up to finding ways to keep us rooted to a single character in the midst of a featureless environment, and neither he nor Redford fully take on the challenge of bringing Our Man to life.
Where I feel All Is Lost lost me was the instant the camera left Redford’s side and Chandor opted for recurring underwater shots of marine life swimming past the underside of the raft. It’s a very generic kind of image, first made famous in the shark’s-eye shots from Jaws. But in Jaws, these shots identified with a character’s point of view, namely, the shark’s. But in All Is Lost, they’re just something to vary up the coverage and otherwise serve no purpose. We already know there’s danger and uncertainty surrounding Our Man; we don’t need the underwater shots of menacing fish to underscore it. It’s instances like this–when great material meets an average approach to it–that are the real bummers at the movies.
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford