What is it about survival stories that captivates us? Is it to somehow remind us that in our darkest hour there is still hope? Is it a way to celebrate the endurance of the human spirit? Is it to immortalize the few who are able to survive such harsh and hopeless conditions? Maybe it is our fascination with stories wrought with danger and peril at every turn and discovering ourselves through the process?
Perhaps it is all of those combined, but one thing is for sure, the new film from writer/director J.C. Chandor, All is Lost, contains a little bit of all those elements while featuring a captivating low key performance by the legendary Robert Redford. Together, both director and actor combine to take the simple concept of a man and his boat and turn it into one of the most engrossing theatrical experiences of the year. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Time: 7:25 pm, Oct. 23, 2013
Projector Type: Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 46 min
Studio: Lionsgate/Roadshow Pictures
Loves: Robert Redford, Survivalist films
Likes: Unique approaches to familiar material
Neutral: Lack of character detail, no real connection to the character
Great to see: Robert Redford on the big screen again.
Usually this is where you would find the synopsis for the film at hand, but that won't work this time. The reason? There is no traditional narrative present in All is Lost. The opening shot of the film shows us an object floating in the water while some narration by our man (Robert Redford) plays as he makes a very brief statement about his current situation. Then the picture fades to black and we are sent back 8 days to find our man fast asleep in his boat when a loud thud occurs waking him from his last peaceful slumber.
It's somewhat difficult to put into words what exactly makes the film work. It has all the aforementioned hallmarks shared by countless other survivalist films such as 127 Hours, Castaway, Buried, Robinson Crusoe and more recently, Gravity. But unlike many of those films, All is Lost takes away any sort of tools to help manipulate us into caring for our one and only character in the film and instead relies solely on Redford's natural charisma.
You won't find any volleyballs or video cameras for him to talk to, there are no flashbacks or inner monologue narration to give us any indication as to who he is, where he came from or where he is going. Heck, we don't even know his name (the credits show him simply as "Our Man") and aside from a couple well placed expletive comments, he never utters a single word for the duration of the film. All we have to go on is what is presented before us. A man, his boat and a very unforgiving sea.
For some, this could be a problem. Having a film that runs nearly two hours in length with nothing more than a sole mute protagonist, a barren sea and the boat he is fighting to keep afloat as the only source for drama can be seen as a detriment. However, when you have an actor as high caliber as Robert Redford in the lead role, there is little room for worry. Redford has this ability to command the screen with just a look and that talent is put to extensive use here.
Just watching him go through the motions as he assesses the situation is compelling stuff. As he works things out in his head, figuring out and calculating what amounts to life and death decisions on the fly is some of the most fascinating cinema you will see all year. The film almost works as a procedural drama or some sort of safety guide on how to handle yourself and the situation in order to best prepare for possible circumstances that are far and beyond out of your control (how he creates water was particularly impressive).
It's not that Redford's character is some sort of miracle worker or superman though. Most of the time things never really go his way and most of the time the worst possible outcome happens. When he attempts to counteract a problem it is usually him using the most mundane and least entertaining solutions imaginable, but it is real. It feels real and most importantly it never once feels as though he was dealt a bad hand simply to create drama. What he goes through isn't fantastical (Life of Pi this is not) and it isn't larger than life (spectacle on the level of Gravity is no where to be found), it's just a more than capable seaman who is trying his best to stay afloat...literally; and it is brilliant!
Watching Robert Redford fighting for his life against mother nature is a miraculous cinematic experience. When he starts battening down the hatches and getting ready for the fight of his life, it isn't exciting because there is a rousing soundtrack or millions of dollars of effects to dazzle our senses. It's tension is built through the simple nuances of a normal man who finds himself incapable of dealing with the destructive powers around him. Seeing the concern build through his subtle facial expressions creates a sense of tension that was unexpected (more than a few times I caught myself holding my breath).
It must be said that this purposeful disconnect the audience has with Redford's character does have its faults. Most of all there isn't anything for us to latch on to and identify with. Beyond the obvious fact that he is an human being in a situation that we ourselves could find ourselves in given the same set of circumstances, there is nothing we learn about him. Our connection with him is built entirely on the hopes that he simply doesn't die, but we don't fear what his death could mean in the grand scheme of things, just that if he dies everything he has been fighting for would have been for nothing.
Even during the film's more harrowing sequences such as when he is at the center of a raging sea storm, we find ourselves tensing up and holding our breath in anticipation of whether or not he will be successful, but it has nothing do with any sort of concern for his loved ones or any other emotional baggage. The entire film is structured like this, straight forward and to the point. But arguably that is the best aspect of the film, how it places us in a single moment in time with this man and witnessing his ordeal first hand with zero connections to him. It is an artistic decision that has its pros and cons, but ultimately works in favor of the type of story being told here.
This is easily one of the best survival films ever made, there is no question as to that fact. The craftsmanship of the direction coupled with an impeccable performance by Redford keeps the audience engaged from the second that thud occurs all the way up until its final moments. If you are a fan of this style film and don't mind its straight forward approach, then this could likely be the best film you see all year. It has all the emotion and tension of a blockbuster like Gravity but it also has all the care and attention to detail of what the best from the independent film market has to offer us. If you have a chance, this is one ship you should definitely catch before it sails out of theaters for good.
This is one of the most spellbinding cinematic experiences of the year. It's purposeful lack of character detail and its daring choice to feature an actor of Robert Redford's caliber in a role that requires him to remain quiet during its duration may not work for everyone, but its unique approach takes a simple idea and makes it an astounding achievement in filmmaking. All is most certainly not lost, the body and soul of this film are firmly intact.