Are filmmakers trying to tell us something important? Here in 2013, is another film, this one from J. C. Chandor (who helmed the uber-relevant Margin Call), that when boiled down to its marrow (and trust me, this is one of the most boiled down films of recent memory) is essentially a “One Person Survival Tale Against All Odds.” As if Cuaron’s epic cosmic odyssey of survival and rebirth in Gravity wasn’t enough…or we weren’t sufficiently bored by Captain Phillips (seriously, what was the point of that film other than for Tom Hanks to break down and cry for an Oscar again?)…or Solomon Northup’s harrowing true life story in 12 Years a Slave wasn’t adequately profound…here comes the minimalist to the point of banality All is Lost. Is this trend (whose current incarnation actually stretches back to 2012 with The Grey and Life of Pi on opposite ends of the survivalist spectrum), which has admittedly seen some amazing highs, lending itself to some poignant commentary on the state of the world today? Or is it all just a bunch of pseudo-philosophical-political-societal-mirror-holding hogwash, some of which has been better packaged than others? And to be fair, though a survival tale, the historical and essential 12 Years a Slave should not be to be held to this type of reductionist dialogue like the others following this trend.
Robert Redford (looking old as heck and with oddly colored almost orange hair) plays the nameless “Our Man” – a loner, presented to us with next to no context, inexplicably out there somewhere in the Indian Ocean, who through a string of bad boating luck finds himself fighting for his life against the great big wide ocean. J. C. Chandor’s direction is sparsely poetic, and he’s created somewhat of a miraculous cinematic oddity here. I’ve never in my life been more mesmerized and bored simultaneously. Knowing nothing about seamanship, I had no idea what Redford’s character was doing most of the time…yet in a utilitarian survivalist way, it was fascinating. Sadly, there’s a heavy Hemingway by way of Cormac McCarthy pall over the whole thing. Much like McCarthy’s The Road sans the drippy kid factor, the minutia of the survival is highly repetitive. Just how many storms, and how much capsizing, and how many leviathan views from below of the life raft does anyone really need to endure to…get it? In many ways, All is Lost would’ve been an amazing experimental short film. As a nearly two-hour narrative it sinks.
I’ve never thought Redford was that great of an actor, but he does fine here. There’s a mysterious voice-over accompanying haunting “what is that floating out there?” imagery to begin the story…but the former silver screen icon remains mostly silent for the remainder of film acting the heck out of the part through strained stairs and parched lips.
The film ends with one of those “open for interpretation” moments that have become increasingly trite accompanied by ethereal music. But walking out of the theater I wasn’t left pondering deep thoughts. I was instead, along with my movie-going companion, extremely thirsty for a huge glass of water. I’m still not sure if that was a physical reaction to what we experienced in the theater or a result of the salty Mexican food and alcoholic beverages we enjoyed before the film. Such is life when all is lost.
Written by David H. Schleicher