Vastness can be breathtaking to behold, like the dark cold of outer space in Gravity or the endless desert in Lawrence of Arabia. But given a rip in a suit or a missed rendezvous at an oasis, that serene forever can quickly become a nightmare, with rescue a near-impossibility and personal perseverance one's only shot at salvation.
In young filmmaker J.C. Chandor's sophomore effort All Is Lost, he makes the sea his beauteous hell. The film's title is a line from a letter written by a hopeless yachtsman adrift at sea in a life raft. No, this is not the second coming of The Life of Pi — All Is Lost is not that existential, though the lone character, who has no name (the credits list him as "Our Man") does go through an existential crisis of sorts. He also endures a series of Jobian trials that would cause most people to voluntarily go swimming with the sharks.
The imperiled seaman is played by none other than Robert Redford who, well into his later years, has the handsome grizzled look of someone who has been at sea for some time. He's not a salty old tar, mind you, but a preppy, pleasure-cruising version of Hemingway's "Old Man," well-dressed in cable-knit sweaters and Bermuda accoutrements.
When we first catch up with Our Man, who is penning his letter, we get just a tinge of his hopelessness and a sense of his imminent demise before we jump back eight days. Our Man is comfortably resting in a well-stocked 39-foot yacht somewhere in the Indian Ocean. But the tranquil moment is short-lived, as a sudden disturbance rocks his boat violently from the side. Examination reveals that a shipping container from a passing cargo ship has fallen off and ruptured his hull, trashing his communication systems too.
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We don't know much about Our Man. We don't know if solo cruises in exotic and far-flung places is something he does on a regular basis, or who exactly might be waiting for his letter back home. What we do know is that he's confident at sea, as he takes to mending the ship's hull calmly and methodically. He's no MacGyver — there's no presto-magico invention to save the day, just slow knuckle-breaking work and hopeful trial and error.
The repair turns out to be merely a stay of execution as violent tempests and other oceanic perils close in on Our Man. Redford's understated and nuanced performance, along with Chandor's simple rendering of the open ocean both as a thing of mighty beauty and a channel of death, fill the film's sails with wonderment and purpose. There's nothing else in this film, and both players are on their game. With each ensuing it-can't-get-any-worse scenario, you can always see in the corner of Redford's eye a faint trace of fear. It's a brilliant touch.
Like Sandra Bullock's astronaut in Gravity, his sailor knows that giving in to panic will result in his immediate death, and that calm, perfunctory, progressive action is the only way to remain alive and afloat. That struggle plays out palpably on the storied actor's face without unnecessary words or exposition. In saying nothing, the film tells us oceans about the man whose name we don't even know.
If there's any shortcoming to All Is Lost it comes in the ending, which is neither a closed loop nor satisfactory. Perhaps Chandor, who received an Academy Award nomination for his first film Margin Call, was reaching for something more, but it ends up being a bold yet hollow grab. But no matter: the film still showcases both the filmmaker's and actor's talents and will only add to Chandor's nascent reputation as one to watch.