Wednesday, February 12, 2014

All in on "All is Lost"

2013 could be called the year of the survival film in American cinema, from action films like "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" to the less obvious period dramas like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." "All is Lost" is perhaps the most representative of the trend, an absolutely bare-bones, stripped down, man vs. nature story that gets to the core of the struggle to stay alive in a way that none of the others manage to.

Our protagonist is an unnamed man on a sailboat, the Virginia Jean, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The man is played by Robert Redford, and has only minimal dialogue. We learn absolutely nothing about him, not why he's on a boat in the middle of the ocean, not where he came from or where he's going, and nothing about his personal life. All we know is that at the beginning of the film, a drifting shipping container filled with shoes collides with and tears a hole in the side of Redford's boat. His radio is not working and he's very far from land and civilization. The rest of the film follows his efforts to repair the vessel, weather a series of storms, and find help. And that's it. And it's phenomenal.

J.C. Chandor made his directing debut last year with "Margin Call," which was about a group of Wall Street stockbrokers and financiers realizing over the course of an eventful night that they were on the brink of financial collapse. "All is Lost" is not entirely different, a tense character study of a man trying to stave off impending disaster and find a way to save himself from doom. This time, of course, the disaster is far more immediate, and the narrative is simplified to the absolute basics. It's one man on a boat battling the forces of nature, and Chandor does a terrific job of capturing the rising tension as one crisis after another keep compounding on each other, escalating the danger and pushing the hero to further and further extremes.

I went into the film completely sure that Redford's character would survive his experience, but by the halfway point of the movie it wasn't clear at all how things would end, and the title of the film was weighing heavy on my mind. The story plays with our expectations, systematically closing avenues of escape and subverting many tropes that are common in other survival movies. The usual narrative safety nets get slashed left and right, to great effect. Also, the film stays on a slow burn from start to finish, with little of the artifice that intrudes on even the most well-meaning studio films like "Captain Phillips." The music is as minimal as the dialogue, the cinematography stays close and tight, and the editing doesn't stray far from the subjective experiences of the hero.

This creates a very different tone that removes many of the usual assurances that everything will be okay. Even the opening scene, where Redford's character is seen writing a letter during a moment of calm to some unknown loved one, explaining what happened, sets a tone of uneasy foreboding. There are several twists that that seem to come out of nowhere, often triggered by the smallest mistakes or pure, dumb, bad luck. The protagonist is clearly an experienced sailor, capable of handling the boat by himself, and proves resourceful time and time again. However, this is a different, harsher universe than what we typically find on theater screens, where things always go wrong in the most damaging ways, and the odds are not in his favor.

It's startling to see Robert Redford starring in a project like this after a steady stream of stately political thrillers in recent years. The role is intensely physical, requiring the beloved 70-something actor and director to clamber about on the rigging of the sailboat, hang precariously above the ocean surface while repairing the damage to his vessel, and repeatedly subject himself to the misery of the elements. The performance he delivers is an absorbing one, but difficult to watch as the situation steadily gets worse and Redford's character faces exhaustion, despair, and hopelessness. This is the first time I've seen Redford truly look his age on film in a long time, those fabled good looks largely not a factor here for once.

This all adds up to a surprisingly intense piece of cinema that I found to be more visceral and more suspenseful than many similar films I've seen from 2013. I wasn't expecting much form the film beyond Redford's performance, but Chandor has proven that he's not just a one-hit wonder, and he's got the chops to tackle a wide range of subject matter. I look forward to seeing him moving on to bigger, more high profile projects in the future.

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