I saw All is Lost at a press screening with four other local film critics. Only one of the five of us actually liked this movie — me. Everyone else thought it was “boring.” And no one but me appreciated the fact that the solo character was silent the entire film, except for one brief enraged curse near the end and a voice-over narration in the prologue in which he apologizes to someone for something. There’s no non-stop internal dialogue such as Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity, the season’s other “lone survivor” tale. And Redford has never been like Bruce Willis, whose Die Hard character relieves his tension by making jokes of his predicaments.
Not only does Robert Redford not laugh at being adrift alone in the Indian Ocean 17,000 nautical miles from any slice of land, he doesn’t even complain out loud about it except that one time. The character, like Redford the man, likes solitude and such people keep their thoughts to themselves even when they are faced with what to every one else seems like certain death.
Truth is, Redford’s silence in the film didn’t bother me. Early on, I just accepted that the character was one of those “quiet man” types. They do exist, albeit they are in rare supply. Secondly, the musical score by Alex Ebert (front man for indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes) is so evocative it seems like a voice, a wordless one indeed, but certainly one with a great variety of emotion. Thirdly, just like listening to radio programs demanded that the audience fill in the story with their own imaginings, so a film story with no dialogue compels the audience to play a more active role in the film watching experience. Since Redford didn’t share any of his inner dialogue, I found myself making it up, imagining what he might be thinking, or more scary, what I might be saying to myself if caught n the same circumstances. (Lots of curses and weeping, I assure you.)
The Redford character — he’s given no name — has one goal and one goal only — to stay alive. He’s completely in the present. And completely alone. You couldn’t help but remember that Pi Patel had a tiger for company in Life of Pi (2012). Castaway’s Tom Hanks had a volleyball named Wilson. In this Job-like tale, Redford doesn’t even have God to rant to. Utterly alone, he can count on no help but his own resources — and an antique sextant that he must teach himself to use.
First order of business, which he takes on matter-of-factly, is to patch the hole in the hull of his 39-foot yacht that a loose shipping container rammed into it. He tries to follow his every day routine, even shaving, when every day more possessions are taken by the damaging sea water and fierce storm waves. When the boat starts to sink, the character has to figure out how to survive in his inflatable life raft, with sharks circling below, the sun hellishly oppressive, and a leak getting too big to repair. He tries vainly, piteously, to flag down passing ships. But in the vastness of the ocean, one man in a raft is invisible.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s first film, Margin Call (2012) was a gregarious group endeavor about stock sellers surviving the last gruesome hours of a failing brokerage like Lehman Brothers. Choosing as your second outing a film with only one actor was a risky decision. In Chandor’s favor is the fact that he somehow got the 77-year old-Redford, perhaps the only American film actor who could indeed carry a film like this by himself, to take on the challenge.
The ending of All Is Lost is going to keep film students arguing for years. Does Redford, like any sane man, give up the relentless struggle and sink to the bottom of the sea? Or, does he reach rock bottom and let himself “surrender” to the cruelty of Life — thus opening the door for God to enter? Filmgoers will have to answer that conundrum by themselves.