When All Is Lost was in the theaters last fall, I wasn’t sure what I would think. One hour and forty-five minutes with one character, and about one hundred spoken words all told (in a voiceover that occurs early on), seemed as if it might be a little too little or, perhaps, too much. I’ve been a Robert Redford fan for almost as long as I’ve been alive, but I still wasn’t sure. I remember seeing him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidon TV, and later, in the theater, The Electric Horseman, which my parents took me to see. A year or so after that, we saw Ordinary People, and I kept looking for Redford as we watched this film, which is based on a Judith Guest novel and was shot in Lake Forest, IL, a town ten minutes from where I grew up. I was disappointed to discover then that directors are rarely seen onscreen with their stars.
As it turned out, when I saw All Is Lost a few weeks ago, I loved it. It reminded me why I'm so interested in film as both entertainment and an art form, especially its magic carpet-like power to take us somewhere for a couple of hours that is very different from where we live. Although All Is Lost is admirably devoid of hyperbole and melodrama, there is plenty of suspense, but this was not really a selling point in my case – I’m not a big fan of disaster or survival pictures – 127 Hours, for example, isn’t a movie I’d want to sit through again. (James Franco sawing off his arm! Drinking his urine!…you get the idea. I like Franco though – he’s versatile and talented – supremely believable as Harvey Milk’s gentle curly-haired lover, also as Allen Ginsberg, and as a creepy, cornrowed Florida drug dealer in Harmony Korine’s strange, seductive Spring-Breakers.)
As I watched the onscreen drama intensify, I kept thinking about how J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost’s screenwriter and director, was able to create such an interesting, sympathetic character without the benefit of dialogue and at least one other human character for “our man” to interact with (this was the name chosen for Redford’s solitary sailor, which we don’t know until the end credits.)
The only other character, aside from the sailboat that our man is captaining, is the Indian Ocean, or maybe more aptly, Mother Nature (or, if you like the sound of it, the Furies, though what crimes from his past our man might be escaping, we never find out. There’s a hint of someone left behind – the boat’s name is Virginia Jean, and at one point, our man starts to open an envelope but sets it aside without reading the card it contains.) We see sharks too, but their presence is mostly implied, except for one brief, startling encounter. A little later, we also see these silent carnivores filmed from far beneath the ocean’s surface, a striking image that is both chilling and breathtaking.
How is it that Chandor and Redford manage to make us care for our/their man? There are several arresting scenes, most of them short, that made me respond strongly and sympathetically to Redford's character. Probably the most fascinating is the scene after he realizes that a dangerous-looking storm will soon be assaulting him and his boat. Aside from making a few onboard preparations belowdecks, what he does is take out his razor and shave off his stubble.
This is such an amazing moment in part because it is so unexpected. A deadly storm about to beset his vessel and what does our man do? Makes himself fitter for polite company. There is no visible panicking, no pulling-of-hair, no shouting at the heavens to bemoan his terrible fate. I wondered, as I’m guessing many other viewers did, if his thought was that he wanted to look presentable for whomever found his body if he didn’t survive the storm. Or maybe this masculine ritual was a comfort and helped to calm him. Whatever prompted him to reach for his shaving kit, it was the right cinematic decision.
I so admired, maybe because I write fiction and think a lot about how to portray a character’s interior life, that our man was almost completely wordless. His thoughts and ideas were largely expressed through activity rather than contrived talking-to-oneself (see Gravity for some of this.) His silence seemed to me an accurate reflection of how we spend so much of our lives. We are alone with our thoughts, even in the midst of lives littered with iPods and iPhones, even if we live among millions of other people. Words of course have tremendous influence on our actions, but it is these actions that physically affect the world and determine in large part our place in it.
Throughout the film, we see our man preparing his meals and eating them, often by necessity and unappetizingly, out of a can. This activity, like shaving, is also a significant part of the human experience, and for some reason, I find the sight of a character eating a meal, especially alone, deeply affecting. Maybe it is this: the body makes its demands and despite our occasional exhaustion or desire to ignore these demands, it is a relief, and so often a shared comfort, to be able to satisfy them.
All Is Lost is an important and rare film – one that values its iconic character’s complex interior life and shows it to us, with such gracefulness and restraint, during a time of extreme distress. And that final shot, which I won’t tell you about in case you haven’t yet seen this film, has enormous power and beauty.