JC Chandor’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, Margin Call, took him ten years to write. It is a deliberate, careful study of what it takes for a man to survive on Wall Street. He’s applied the same deceptively simple writing and directing to his new film, All Is Lost, starring just one person: Robert Redford.
The film begins with a few plain-spoken words from Redford. From that point on, the film relies only on Redford’s actions, with no other dialogue spoken. Still, we learn much about his character from watching what he does. He reveals his character through a series of tests. He isn’t Job, nor is he Pi — this isn’t a film about questioning faith in a higher power, rather, about faith in one’s resourcefulness, faith in one’s self.
After all, we are born with these giant, fancy, spectacular brains. We never know what that intelligence is capable of achieving until we’re put to the test. Redford’s character brings to his challenge to survive decades of life experience etched on his face and lighting his eyes, along with basic education, courage, and good, old-fashioned wits. All Is Lost is a film about perseverance, not survival.
Whatever Redford’s character had in mind when he took off on his sailboat, his plans were abruptly derailed once he was hit by a stray shipping container full of shoes. He carefully sets about patching the hole. The first storm comes, it nearly sinks his craft but he and the vessel recover. The second storm? It nearly destroys them both. Yet each time he is hit with another obstacle he finds a way to overcome it. At some point it becomes clear that writer/director JC Chandor is drawing the larger comparison to our own lives: Survival is dependent upon not losing hope.
How this differs from last year’s Life of Pi is that it isn’t a spiritual journey to find life’s meaning. In Chandor’s film, losing hope refers only to tricking yourself to prevent hopelessness. There’s a line in the David Mamet script for The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin that says most men die in the wilderness of shame. One misstep, like forgetting to secure the cap on the fresh water container, can distort the reality — dying of shame means to be undone by the idea of failure. All Is Lost depicts a character who has many opportunities to die of shame, to simply stop trying to keep himself alive. And yet, each time, there is that flicker behind his eyes that says, okay, so that didn’t work so well. Let’s try this.
Funnily enough, and sneakily enough, this is an applicable philosophy to most of the quiet day-to-day dreams we don’t dare realize. We are consumed by the fear of failing before we start. Or, we are stopped along the way by one catastrophic error and that prevents us from trying again. Redford’s character somehow has it right: all is not lost until really, you’ve lost everything.
It is Redford’s most moving portrayal capping a long and diverse career as actor, director, producer, Sundance film institute creator. In All Is Lost we have to opportunity to get to know this man up close, to really look at his skin in the light, to appreciate his freckled, wrinkled hands that have touched so much in their day. His frame, one we all know so well, now withering naturally with age but still in formidable shape. That famous hair, here stuck to his forehead which has been caked with blood from hitting his head. He let’s us in, for once, without the silk screen, without vanity. And though there is no dialogue, no other characters, no love story, it’s impossible not to root for him.
Redford has carried the film completely, within and without. By the end, what becomes most moving of all is the actor’s — the movie star’s — vulnerability. Without his wits, he is a frail old man, in danger of being swallowed by the sea.
Redford is so good in this movie if he didn’t already have such a long history of films behind him this would launch his career late in life. Despite his history, Redford has been nominated for Best Actor just once, in 1974 for The Sting. Here’s to hoping he sees a second, in 2014, at the age of 78.
As for Mr. Chandor, I don’t think I’ve seen such a dramatic departure from a film debut to a followup as his leap from Margin Call to All Is Lost. A film like this is a risk in an era when movie studios won’t release films that aren’t aimed at 13-year-olds. Funnily enough, I think every 13-year-old should see this movie, if, for no other reason than they can learn how to turn salt water into a form that’s drinkable.
When you think of inventive cinema these days, the first thing that comes to mind is the technology. In an era of rapidly evolving media there is something purifying about a film that displays pure craft — acting, writing, and directing. There are no quick fixes here about what it means to live, or what it means to die. For the duration, you are merely required to hold on. Hold on, as long as you can, until all — every last thing — is lost.