Written by Zac Platt.
With only one cast member and almost no dialogue, All Is Lost is nothing if not ambitious in its stripped-down approach to story-telling. The tight focus of writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) employs a welcome authenticity to the isolation and hopelessness of Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist. But admirable concept aside, Chandor fails to subsidise the minimalist script with subtext or capitalize successfully on what is set up. Rather, All Is Lost wades nervously into the depths of its survival genre and fails to be defined as anything more than what we see in the trailer. Despite excellent craft from all involved and some inspired cinematic language from Chandor, a hollow script and fumbled ending holds All Is Lost back from being the powerhouse it insists itself to be.
All Is Lost takes place some 1700 nautical miles from Sumatra Straits, where our man is making his voyage across the Indian Ocean. While sleeping, his boat crashes into an adrift shipping container that punctures a large hole in the side of his vessel. After repairing the hole and draining his flooded cabin, his situation gets progressively worse as harsh storms and all manner of bad luck take away everything he has, piece by piece. To the film’s credit it milks each loss just right, planting the importance of each component in the audience’s mind before taking it off the table. The move to the raft and watching the his boat sink is by far the most memorable of these moments, but each step towards oblivion holds water and engages the viewer’s morbid curiosity.
The realism with which the story is told is far and away its biggest success. Even the wonderfully mundane contents of the shipping container exclaim the pointlessness of his tragedy, preventing any sanctuary from some cinematic poetry. By making his plight so believable, it becomes impossible not to root for the doomed seafarer. The same sparsity that grounds the film makes room for the camera to tell the story in place of the absent dialogue. Chandor’s ability to communicate the complexities of his hero’s struggle with simple imagery earns the film’s most emotional and intelligent qualities. He resists the urge to explain why the hero creates a salt bath, or why his marks on the map are so important, instead letting the audience work for understanding and, eventually, a greater empathetic yield.
A particular standout is watching a small ecosystem build around his raft. First we see images of small formless life he has polluted his surroundings with that soon attracts a school of fish. As he drifts on, larger and larger fish are drawn to the hotspot until inevitably it earns the attention of cinema’s most celebrated predator. While this was a wonderfully haunting subplot that could have built to a thunderous climax, it instead becomes the biggest casualty in All Is Lost’s inability to capitalise on anything beyond the film’s elevator pitch. The sailor has only one interaction with the sharks and it feels like more of a gag than anything else.
While the way in which the story’s told does indeed make excellent use of the filmic medium, it just doesn’t have anything memorable occur. The ending in particular is told with some truly evocative visuals, but ultimately achieves and actually serves to derail the despondency the film worked so hard to build. Which is doubly an issue when the construction of said dejection is the only thing really happening in the film.
It’s tempting to let Chandor off the hook by saying that adding more ingredients would spoil what makes All Is Lost unique, but there are many ways to add weight and complexity without exposition and dialogue. Given the deft cinematic hand Chandor displays here, he’s clearly more than capable of spicing up this very flat tale without compromising his vision. The steady supply of bad luck hitting Redford take away any rises and falls the script could have benefited from and makes All Is Lost decidedly one note. On reflection, the film can feel like one long act, which makes the story feel like it went by much quicker. For some films this could be a boon, but when the stakes are survival and starvation it becomes quite an issue for the film to breeze by.
Perhaps a bigger problem is that Redford’s character rarely if ever feels anything but reactionary. Obviously he isn’t in control, but aside from very occasional moments of creativity, he does very little but go along for the ride. The result is that there just isn’t really anything interesting about him, aside from the fact he is having a particularly shitty week. Were it not for Redford’s endearing and stoic presence this incidental protagonist could have crippled the film, but luckily he is able to elevate the character into something we can care about. Reserved through so many of his hardships, when Redford’s rocky demeanour starts to chip away you really taste the fear and helplessness. The character’s isolation makes emoting somewhat redundant, but Redford is masterfully able to show the descent into nihilism without necessarily expressing it.
All Is Lost is a film that seems to assert itself as bold, but fails to ever be so beyond its pitch. The flatness inherent to the script’s authenticity and the lack of anything beyond or beneath the central concept prevent it from being the brave film it sets out to be. Instead, the easy writing makes All Is Lost a 106-minute extension of the trailer that is somehow less than the sum of all its parts. If you can indulge yourself in Chandor’s strong cinematic language there is an experience here worth being pulled into, but ultimately it’s one that will soon be forgotten about as it is swept under the waves of the truly brave and powerful films of the last year.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10