Saturday, November 09, 2013

All Is Lost

In J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost we are invited to consider the weathered face of Robert Redford, who plays an unnamed man piloting a small yacht through the Indian Ocean alone. We’re given only the barest scrap of information on Redford’s character; there’s a letter written by the character (whom I’ll just refer to as “Redford”) and read in voice-over at the opening in which he expresses deep regret to someone for something gone wrong. Though the story is structured as a struggle to survive at sea it isn't a leap to wonder if the title of the movie we’re watching has at least two meanings.

 After the hull of Redford’s boat is punctured by a stray shipping container he moves swiftly to patch the hole and continue on, though the fact that the water has destroyed his radio isn't a good sign. It’s the subsequent storm that makes survival a question, and it’s in these scenes that the movie takes hold thanks to the marvelous and somewhat unexpected work of Redford the actor. It seems to me that All Is Lost could only have been made with a star of Redford’s iconic value and this solo turn doesn’t allow him to hide behind charm or irony. Robert Redford is 77 years old, and although as a director he has made films of great sensitivity I don’t know that I’ve ever seen give as simple and moving an acting performance as he gives here. There is a keen intelligence to the character, but also a reserve of anger that the world hasn’t conformed to his vision. In a movie with almost dialogue how would I know what Redford is angry about? If All Is Lost has an idea about anything it is that even at sea and far from everyone there is no escape from the business of the world. The sneakers that bob out of the shipping container that strikes the Virginia Jean were clearly meant for someone, and the huge cargo ships that Redford (now on a life raft) encounters look like anonymous floating cities. The character is a man on the run, but Chandor doesn’t let us forget that the spinning of the world is an immutable force. These scenes of “contact” with the world outside of Redford’s boat are the only time we feel a directorial hand at work, but they are brief enough and they don’t spoil the movie’s unique spell. The technical achievement here is less showy than that on display in Gravity but at least as impressive. Chandor, working with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, knows how to make the Virginia Jean cabin and the inside of a life raft feel like spaces in which anything is possible. The other major character in the film, in a sense, is composer Alex Ebert, whose score is plaintive and restrained but never trite. Ebert’s music reminds us we’re watching something elemental, but it never gets in the way.

 I want to consider All Is Loston its own merits, of which there are many, but in a season of two formally rigorous films that are each built around a single actor and an imaginative director it is hard not to draw comparisons. Both All Is Lost and Gravity are about people making a choice to fight for life against great odds, but in Gravity the value of that choice is hammered home again and again while J.C. Chandor dares to suggest that the choice may have no meaning at all. Gravity neatly closes a circle for Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, but in doing so it highlights the overly determined nature of its plot. All Is Lost is less obviously accessible but has a much more deft touch in the way it doesn’t attempt to force certain answers. Then again, reading over this paragraph makes me question the prejudices that I bring to the film and I’ll give All Is Lost further credit for getting that response. Finally it matters little whether All Is Lost is better or worse than Gravity or any other film. It is a work of great maturity made by two artists working at their best; one is a director steeped in both cinema and the ideas that art exists to confront , and the other an actor with nothing to prove but much left to give.

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