All is Lost is not a movie for everyone. For one thing, roughly 95% of the film’s dialogue occurs in the first two minutes of the film. Additionally, there is only a single actor (the iconic Robert Redford) playing an unnamed character with no backstory and the ending is ambiguous.
The film opens with a Redford voiceover providing an apologetic account to unknown loved ones of his failed voyage, but insisting that he fought to the very end. It then flashbacks to eight days earlier and proceeds from there. Redford plays a lone sailor (called “Our Man” in the credits) who awakens in his sailboat to discover the side of his boat has been pierced by a wayward shipping container and below deck is ankle-high deep in water. The container unfortunately struck right above where he kept his GPS, laptop computer, and radio, which are all fried by the water. Though Our Man patches the hole and gets his ship moving, he is 1700 nautical miles from Sumatra in the Indian Ocean. As most sailors will tell you, situations like this tend to get a whole lot worse before they get better. Why he is there and what he is doing in his boat, the Virginia Jean, is unclear. He is an experienced sailor, but in no way an expert, as evidenced by having to dig out a handbook on celestial navigating and his unfamiliarity with non-electronic instruments. On top of all this, Our Man is a weathered, tired man who is easily exhausted by his work.
The film follows Our Man’s attempts to stay alive during various hardships, including storms and human errors. Essentially, the film boils down to how little control one has against mother nature, especially when worm’s eye (perhaps in this case shark’s eye) shots from below show tranquil ocean life in comparison to Our Man’s escalating troubles. It reminded me a lot of survivalist literature like Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” or Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” the type of man vs. nature stories they aren’t written about much anymore (except, of course, real-life examples like 127 Hours). In that way it’s a less-accessible version of Castaway, since there is no backstory or volleyball for Redford’s character to speak to.
In fact, much of the film is essentially a silent movie, which brings me to my one major gripe. At first the film’s background sound is all diegetic, and I was perfectly happy with the soundtrack being the ominous roars of the ocean and the wind. However, as the film goes on there is an increasing amount of orchestral score. Personally I felt that this was a bad choice and really detracted from the realism element that made the film unique. I know music is used in film to manipulate the audience, but Redford is so skilled of an actor that even silent he can convey every emotion and struggle his character goes through. The sound effects team did a wonderful job providing the soundtrack of the ocean — I would’ve liked to have kept it that way. This is the first narrative film scored by composer Alex Ebert, and though this is writer/director J.C. Chandor‘s second film (his first was the surprise Sundance hit Margin Call, which put him on Redford’s radar), I still chalk that decision to use music as a rookie mistake for both men.
Chandor obviously has a lot to offer as an independent filmmaker, and I hope to see him to continue to make both mainstream films like Margin Call and more ambitious projects like All is Lost. Again, it’s not a film for everyone, and because of the storytelling challenges it sometimes seems more of an exercise in filmmaking than a film itself. But an immense amount of effort went into this movie, and a patient fan of movies ought to enjoy it.
Rating: Robert Redford shines in a film that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (7.5/10).