Genre: Action, Adventure
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
What happens when all hope is lost, when every avenue has been diligently explored and exhausted? How much does it take to put out the fire that drives people to keep going? J.C. Chandor’s second feature shows humanity at its resourceful best and yet most insignificant as a sailor fights for survival alone at sea. Compellingly tense with a sharp existential edge, All Is Lost sneaks in as the last great film of a very strong year.
Robert Redford is the unnamed protagonist in peril on the high seas. No time is wasted on preamble. Redford awakens on his sailing boat to find that the side of the hull has been punctured by a stray shipping container that has fallen into the ocean. Our insatiable desire for shiny trainers has left him in dire straits.
What follows is an intense survival ordeal as the ever resourceful Redford does everything he can to patch up the boat and keep going, but no matter what he does; nature still holds the upper hand. We watch him first patch up the hole, attempt to fix the radio, pump out the water and try and head for safety before facing storms, sharks and despair as he is forced into his life raft, watching ships pass by in the Madagascar shipping lane.
Chandor drew much attention with his sharply written debut feature, Margin Call. Although dialogue has been all but abandoned here, the central theme as people try to deal with a situation out of their control remains the same. In this case, Redford is the latest in a long line of people to take on and fail to tame nature. Even the most resourceful person will eventually find that their practical capabilities are never infinite.
For large parts, its plays out like a repair procedural. Time is lavished on the efforts Redford makes to fix his boat. The camera closes in on his hands as they work up tar solutions, tie secure knots and find materials to cover the hole. There are a series of lulls where his latest efforts seem to hold before the hostile environment around him steps up a gear and tears down his latest painstaking work.
Redford’s physical presence dominates the film. It’s a dazzling performance as he owns the screen through methodical actions that belie the consistent decline of his resilience. There is a moment when he has climbed the mast and spots a storm coming in the distance, where you can see the resolve start to drain. He soaks up the frustrations, slowly weakening until he’s left helplessly stranded in a life raft, finally broken. A scream of despair signals that there are limits to all of our endurance.
Redford may be the centrepiece, the ace in Chandor’s hand, but this is also a coldly beautiful film. Using the sweep of the ocean to full effect, Chandor and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco find striking shots from the sighting of the impending storm to the solemn passing of cargo ships that plough straight past failing to notice the small raft. When the storm breaks, it moves to another level. Redford is hurled over board and spun around inside the cabin as the boat is tossed about like a ragdoll. The underwater photography is equally impressive, adding both scale and a claustrophobic edge.
It’s not quite perfect. Right at the end, Chandor steps back from the seemingly inevitable conclusion, introducing an element of unnecessarily pat ambiguity. Not only does it feel like a cop out, it’s engineered to create a talking point too overtly, breaking the austere realism that’s guided everything up to that point. It slightly sours, but cannot ruin the mood.
All Is Lost is a mentally draining experience that everyone should put themselves through. The gradual erosion of hope and the encroachment of lonely resignation in the face of overwhelming forces takes its toll. Only on exceptional occasions can film have this impact. This is beautifully shot, absolutely terrifying, masterful cinema, a rare treat to savour.