2013 is the year of the survivor-thriller living on top. In Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón explored themes of isolation amidst the inhospitable vacuum of space, using dazzling special effects to elevate a simple story to a visual masterpiece. Paul Greengrass dove into the true account of Richard Phillips and his struggle to maintain his humanity in a Somali pirate hostage situation in Captain Phillips, an excellent biopic fueled by a knockout performance from Tom Hanks. In All is Lost, J.C. Chandor pits man against entropy, testing the endurance of the human spirit against an onslaught of ill-tempered serendipity at sea. It must be time for a genre victory lap, because once more, survivor-thrillers have just crowned themselves king.
There is something about these types of films that make us want to rise from our seats and cheer. They drive us to invest, they urge us to care. They recognize the most enticing aspect of our own humanity, our un-surrendering urge to live. Unlike the cataclysmic weather catastrophe of The Perfect Storm, the humanist reckless abandon of this year’s Danish film Kon Tiki, or the global satellite calamity of Gravity, All is Lost follows a relatively meager story, one of bad odds and “Ah shit!” coincidences, but however paltry it might seem from afar, it ends up having more meat on its bones than either of the two former stories combined.
As the unnamed, gruff hero of this expedition, Robert Redford hardly utters a single line of dialogue and yet carries the film squarely on his shoulders. Even without a true spoken line, there is never a time when Redford’s weathered chops don’t convince us of the track-halting gravity of his worsening circumstance. Even while he remains collected and fine-tuned, it is clear that his situation is rather grim. But Redford’s “Our Man” goes about course correcting with the smooth confidence of a career father, trying to carry us into smooth seas, both physically and metaphorically. With his panic pushed deep down, Redford is a machine of physical efficiency, an Einstein of deep-breathed problem solving.
To be the only man credited on a cast list (there’s not even a glimpse of another face, not a whisper of another voice) is a pretty unique accomplishment, but to do so and be a serious Oscar contender is another thing entirely. Redford lays down a silent tour-de-force, reckoning those who may have called him on “phoning it in” in this later stage of his career. If there’s one thing Redford is not, it’s a hack, and even when his directorial projects land with a bit of a thud, it’s not for lack of trying.
In All is Lost, his measured passion and experienced bravado guide us through a range of emotions, however restrained and simmering they may be. But this is the most challenging, and often least appreciated, act of them all. Conveying buried emotions, those under a veneer of levelheaded collection, takes conditioned skill and requires a deeper commitment to self-exploration than those spilling over the surface in winded theatrical monologues or emotion-stricken outbursts.
The decision to put so much stock in Redford’s ability to single-handedly emote his way through a film takes a boatload of guts, to Chandor’s credit. But Chandor’s deep-seated confidence in Redford is doubled in his cool, collected approach. Evident from the blueprint of a dialogue-bereft script, Chandor obviously is a man of vision, swinging for the fences. Instead of deploying red herrings, arm wrestling the audience into a false sense of tension, everything from the very get-go is very real and very dangerous.
From the opening shot that confusingly pans across a shipping container adrift at sea (I initially thought the shot was of a red dock attached to land), the sensation of something amiss comes barreling from the screen. It’s no surprise that the lost shipping container – human clumsiness and carelessness personified – is the culprit of the “Who punctured my boat?” mystery. Even worse, the salt water gushing through the boat’s gaping hole has destroyed all electrical navigation and communication equipment. From minute one, the stakes are sky high. The hole is in the boat, the boat is in the water, the water is in the boat and as it turns out, the ocean is large…very large. There’s no phoning in support, no cries for help, just a need to grab your bootstraps, yank them up as high as possible and try to start calculating your way out of the ghastly inevitability of drowning. Here, throwing in the towel means certain death.
What transcribes over the following 106 minutes is the story of a man fighting tooth-and-nail for survival against all odds, even when all is lost. Just as he patches up one problem, another surfaces, and another, and another. From sharks to lack of supplies to a crumbling mast, his very humanity dangles at the end of a rope but it’s not something he will abandon without the fight of his life.
Captured with crisp imagery from cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, it’s almost hard to believe that the film was shot almost entirely on a water stage (the same one used in 1997 for Titanic actually). Though backed by a small army of digital effects workmen, the water-logged stunts have a sense of immediacy and deep-splintered truth to them largely lacking from CGI-driven films. Although Gravity elevates visual panache to a new level, it fails to hone in as acutely on the emotional isolation of its central character, giving Redford and crew a matured edge over Sandra Bullock and Co. emotionally.
The creaks and moans of the tried ship mimic the heaves and hoes of a exasperated Redford, visual cues as foreboding and understated as the hardly visible score from Alex Ebert. Each adds their own signature to the layer cake of suspense, rather than seeking glory for their own right. it’s this sum-of-all-parts attitude that really makes the film sing. Chandor’s vision is so exact and his execution so precise, that All is Lost adds up to one doozie of an experience. Finger-nibblingly exciting when it needs to be, nimbly quiet when called for, but always full of hope and tenacity, All is Lost is a whopper.