To be truly alone, to prepare, travel, hurl oneself into prolonged isolation: we can reduce this to some stoic, masculine, perhaps inherently literary ideal—books, after all, are a way of being alone, while movies have traditionally brought people together—but there is something universal, even spiritual, in the pursuit of solitude. Somewhere, somehow, the protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost resolved himself to such a pursuit. We meet him on a yacht in the Indian Ocean. He’s old but very fit, handsome, almost certainly affluent, clearly a skilled sailor. He exudes discipline. We might envy or admire his ability to fulfill his resolution to be alone. But solitude can come with a chilling price. The man’s punishment for trying to get away from the world might be to be banished from it forever, to die alone, unable to ask for consolation, much less help. A drifting shipping container has pierced his yacht’s hull. He wakes to find the cabin flooded, the onboard electrical system malfunctioning. He does not show panic—is panic something we only show when there’s someone to show it to? He doesn’t talk to himself. He takes care of business, scaling the mast, patching the hole, trying to repair the radio. Days pass. At one point he shaves—perhaps it helps to retain habits in a crisis. Is the man doomed, as the title implies? He’s played by Robert Redford, giving his most compelling performance, a one-man show, all action, no talk. But just because he’s Robert Redford doesn’t mean we get a happy ending. And All is Lost isn’t about endings. It’s a film of moments, each heightened by the knowledge that it could be the last.
I found Chandor’s debut, the corporate drama Margin Call, a little overrated, maybe because we were so hungry for a movie to talk about the financial crisis. But All is Lost, the antithesis of Margin Call in many regards, is extraordinary, a cinematic stunt, but one that’s captivating and teeming with unspoken meaning—save a brief opening voice-over, a curse, and a few garbled fragments transmitted on the dying radio, there is no dialogue. (An instructive to the makers of Gravity: you actually can tell an engaging story of survival without having to cram every scene with chatter.) What is the man’s name? What was his career? Does he have a family? Did he abandon them? Or they him? What brought him here? The questions are richer than any answers could be. In lieu of answers we watch, listen, and very quickly begin to find ourselves in that sinking ship. (One interesting link to Margin Call: the guilty shipping container is leaking shoes, an exceedingly subtle commentary on global economics. The affluent American is imperiled by a container carrying goods produced in developing countries by underpaid workers so as to better line the pockets of affluent Americans.)
Chandor sticks close to his man, even during sequences in which most directors would be tempted to cut away. The yacht does summersaults during a nocturnal tempest, and Chandor smartly films the entire sequence from inside the cabin, a small world turning upside-down. An image of Redford asleep in his hammock above the flooded cabin, personal items afloat in the soup, recalls Tarkovsky. As the film progresses, there are occasional shots of life below the surface—the world that threatens to consume the man. Alex Ebert’s score stays mostly level with the environmental sounds, only rarely surfacing to heighten mood when things get especially dire. I can’t say enough about the rare degree of rigour applied to this more or less mainstream movie. All is Lost prizes a truly immersive cinematic experience over cozy tropes. It asks only for the sort of attention one might apply to one’s own solitude.