J.C. Chandor | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Robert Redford on a boat with no dialogue for over an hour and a half. That’s not a spurious way of describing All is Lost — that is what it is. Well, OK, he does say a couple of words — more or less literally “a couple”, though.
Redford plays “Our Man”, who’s pleasantly drifting around on his small yacht when it strikes a shipping container that’s just floating in the middle of the ocean. Now with a massive great hole in the side of his boat, he has to repair it using what he has to hand. The radio is damaged too, so he can’t call for help. And then an almighty storm rolls in…
It’s hard to succinctly pigeonhole All is Lost. It’s a survival movie, if that’s really a genre; man vs the elements. It’s an adventure movie, a little bit in the old-fashioned sense, as here’s a man who, through no choice of his own, has what you might describe as “an adventure”. He doesn’t have a companion to natter to, which would’ve surely been easier to write and more readily palatable to audiences; nor is there any narration of his thoughts, besides opening with the reading of a letter he will write later, which is, frankly, a needless addition to the movie. Redford doesn’t need to speak, because he conveys his character’s every thought, emotion, fear, indecision, and resolve through his face and his movement. Some viewers may overlook it because there’s no dialogue for him to emote with, but it’s a sublime example of acting.
Indeed, it’s testament to Redford’s performance (much discussed but ultimately overlooked during last year’s awards season), J.C. Chandor’s direction, and the work of the special effects and stunt teams, that the film remains gripping throughout. Through chance, coincidence, bad luck, but never forced tension-mounting on the part of the filmmakers (at least, not obviously so), our man’s fortunes go from bad to worse to even worse to even worse than that. Despite his best efforts, he’s on a downward spiral, a seemingly irreversible series of unfortunate events. If you ever had an interest in solo sailing, this is liable to put you off.
It all leads to an ending that has proven divisive. I shan’t spoil it, but I was fine with it. I don’t think it’s in any way a betrayal of what’s gone before. I will say that it provides a resolution, rather than leaving things open-ended, which I give away purely because some reviewers have stated a preference for a lack of resolution here. Why? Once our man finds himself in this situation, there are all of three possible outcomes: he gets himself out of it, he gets rescued, or he dies at sea. Not telling us which happens would be a contrivance on the part of the filmmakers — if this were a real story, for example, we’d know which happens, so why deny it in fiction too? I’m not saying unresolved/ambiguous endings are always bad, because I think they do have a place, but this isn’t one of those places. Indeed, I’d argue that to leave it open would have been a cop-out. Fortunately, Chandor is man enough not to do that. As to which of the three aforementioned options he went with, they all seem fundamentally just as likely to me, so I also don’t object to the one he did pick.
Sometimes self-imposed filmmaking limitations lead to an exercise in competency over good moviemaking — “can we pull this off?” rather than “can we make a good film?” Chandor and co do pull their limitations off, I suspect not because someone set out purely to make a film with one character and no dialogue, but because it’s a gripping, exciting, tense movie, carried by a powerful near-silent performance and first-rate direction.