Departing from the bustling financial world of his début, Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s second film sees Robert Redford take a break from his recently tepid directorial work to play a sailor whose ship is ruptured by a drifting shipping container. His struggle with shark and storm is grimly played out against an ocean as blank as the cast list. That’s it. For 106 minutes.
It is an unfortunate coincidence for All Is Lost that it premièred just a couple of months after Alfonso Cuarón’s phenomenal Gravity because the two films are so thematically and structurally similar as to invite comparison, though set in radically different worlds. Both are takes on the well-worn tale of a lone figure cast adrift and discovering their limitations through a trial by ordeal, but All Is Lost is humble, claustrophobic, and relatively low-budget, where Gravity is an expansive, spectacular blockbuster with half a world in every other frame.
But what is least effective in Gravity is deftly handled here: the awkwardly brisk tragic backstories of Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s astronauts are replaced by an enigmatic introductory voiceover which merely hints at life on land. Redford’s nameless sailor has done wrong, but to whom exactly is not revealed; he has made mistakes, which may or may not be the nautical calamities seen in the remainder of the film. Following this opening the distinction between character and action is blurred: excluding the odd expletive no further dialogue is uttered. Personality is discovered in Redford’s increasingly desperate responses to his situation, and part of the allure is that the gaps in his story are available for speculation as his nature is revealed.
It is a testament to Redford’s performance and the artfulness of Chandor that the film is engrossing throughout despite its minimalism. Redford is persuasively haggard, and creates a persona that is compelling if not always attractive. The outstanding cinematography seldom resorts to a wide angle to suggest loneliness and instead finds its strength in the limitations of the subject matter, drawing in close to the ancient mariner’s increasingly sunburnt and weathered face and emphasising the meagre world of the boat from which Redford must grind an existence. As an aside, those affected by seasickness might want to seek calmer waters as the pitching of the camera was convincing enough to provoke a little queasiness at the rockier moments. Occasional generically dramatic music was an unwelcome distraction, and a little more trust in the Redford’s emotive powers would have pared it back further still.
All Is Lost is most enjoyable as a gruelling mood piece, but due to its flat trajectory it struggles with closure and is confined at the dénouement to the ‘enjoyable but unsatisfying’ category (if psychological desolation, ahem, floats your boat). But few recent filmic moments have come close to the excitement and terror of seeing Redford hurled around, under, and off his ship, and despite a few qualms, some major, All Is Lost is an engrossing study of individual willpower and hardship.
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