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By Adam Nayman
Robert Redford dies at the end of All Is Lost. This is not, strictly speaking, a spoiler, as the climax of J.C. Chandor’s sophomore feature is calculatedly ambiguous—an existential Choose Your Own Adventure, if you will. The final image of Redford’s unnamed seaman reaching out to grasp the outstretched hand of an unseen rescuer is equally readable as a deus ex machina or a death dream; the faintly surreal quality of the visuals could indicate either genuine disorientation or a merciful, fatal hallucination. If I happen to come down on the side of the latter, it has less to do with the staging of the money shot than the way that it gets there in the first place. Of all the recent extreme-survival narratives in American cinema—from 127 Hours (2010) to Life of Pi (2012) to this year’s Gravity, Captain Phillips, and 12 Years a Slave—All Is Lost has the most powerful sense of inexorability. It also happens to be the most accomplished piece of filmmaking on that list by a nautical mile.
Though Chandor’s decent 2011 debut Margin Call featured lots of good actors crammed together in board rooms, it felt more artistically constrained than authentically claustrophobic: if the film’s long day’s journey into financial nightmare suggested an especially topical off-Broadway play, the glossy, HBO-ready cinematography kept it lodged in the realm of the comfortably glib. Where Chandor truly excelled was in his ability to perk up such oft-somnolent performers as Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons and rein in show-offs like Stanley Tucci, while his clever deployment of co-producer Zachary Quinto as an investment-firm Chicken Little (arching those Vulcanized eyebrows in alarm rather than aloofness) suggested that he was as much attuned to individual actors as ensemble dynamics—a rare inheritor of the Sidney Lumet tradition at a time when so many indie kids are strenuously seeking to evoke Terrence Malick.
There are a few lyrical moments in All Is Lost, but for the most part the film is an admirable case of form following function: the camera is always where it needs to be instead of where an overweening director might think to place it. And although the film’s almost total lack of dialogue is clearly a screenwriter’s conceit, the director’s choices are genuinely judicious. Starting with the opening voice-over, Chandor lets a very little bit of poetry go a long way: Redford’s reading comes over a shot of a massive, floating metallic object (we’ll later come to recognize it as the shipping container that crashes into the protagonist’s yacht, irreparably denting its hull), the obliqueness of the composition belying the plangency of the words, which eventually coalesce into an apology of sorts—an admission of failure tinged with guilt. While this tactic of beginning at or near the endpoint of a story and then circling back to the kickoff often undermines any sense of narrative drive, it works here because it establishes a meditative tone just long enough for it to be brutally punctured. The first thing we see in the movie proper is water seeping into the protagonist’s sleeping quarters, and while it’s not difficult to connect the dots between this little trickle and the water-logged visual of the prologue, the foreknowledge that things will not end well clarifies the film’s theme—which, simply put, is the inevitability of death.
Not that Redford’s character goes down without a fight. In the early stages, he’s surprisingly levelheaded about the fact that his boat has had its side smashed in, acting quickly but methodically to dislodge the container and try to repair the leak. These early passages are rich in thick, tactile details (e.g., the brown solvent that he uses to treat the hole before patching over it), but there’s a hovering sense of unease that has less to do with the approaching storm than some carefully repressed interior reckoning. Adrift and alone, all Redford’s solo voyager can do is to focus intensely on the state of his vessel, which gradually comes to seem like an extension of his body; he has to maintain the former in order to secure the safety of the latter. That the vessel betrays its fragility well before its passenger suggests that old maxim about spirit and flesh, and the unfortunate reality that the one will always be subordinate to the other.
Using a harrowing physical scenario to access grander metaphysical themes is a tried-and-true tactic, and Chandor’s film acquits itself far more honourably within this tradition than others of its contemporaries. Where Life of Pi’s concluding twist—that its whole believe-it-or-not adventure story was an allegory all along—is a self-saluting gesture passed off as narrative sleight-of-hand, the minimalist spaciousness of All Is Lost invites deeper interpretation in real time instead of saving it up for a big finish. And while Gravity briefly hits pause on its video-game storytelling to shove in some quick-hit sociopolitical commentary, as Sandra Bullock’s flailing astronaut makes her way from a stalled American spacecraft to a functioning Chinese one, complete with smiling Buddha figurine on the dashboard, All Is Lost sees and raises that ready-made resonance in a late shot of Redford trying and failing to flag down an internationally branded freighter: the literal and proverbial little guy bobbing helplessly in capitalism’s unheeding wake. And when it comes to vertiginous perspectives, Chandor tops Ang and Alfonso both: none of Pi or Gravity’s CGI-assisted swoops through sea, sky or space is as harrowing as a dangling camera capturing the sight of a 77-year-old man’s legs wrapped around a 60-foot beam, a breathless shot that offers a genuine three-for-one sense of peril—for cameraman, character and actor—all at once.
That contrast between the physical vulnerability of the aged man onscreen and the aura of invincibility surrounding the aged man who plays him is, of course, the great central tension of All Is Lost. Rather than writing yet another encomium to Redford’s award-worthy under-acting in this movie (not that one isn’t entirely deserved), I’ll just say that it was an especially smart move for Chandor to use one of the truly Teflon American movie stars in a part that pretty quickly strips away that untouchable surface. No less than Warren Beatty and more consistently than his old pal Paul Newman, Redford always seemed to have bigger fish to fry than being a star. When he and Beatty won directing Oscars in succession for Ordinary People (1980) and Reds (1981), it seemed less like consolation prizes for being overlooked at their day jobs than recognition of their true ambitions. Where the equally effortlessly glamorous Newman could wear that famous face and still disappear into roles, Redford always seemed to be playing some version of himself: an affable (if sometimes strenuously intense) genetic front-runner whose beauty was his birthright. The WASP-without-a-stinger quality that made him perfect for The Candidate (1972) and The Way We Were (1973) also rendered him somewhat unfit for duty in the decade’s true keynote works; even in his signature role as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men (1975), he’s more the handsome blonde front-man to Dustin Hoffman’s hard-driving Carl Bernstein.
But then Hoffman could never have done All Is Lost, and neither could Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, and not only because they’ve all lately (over)exposed themselves as comedy-cameo clowns. (Newman could have done it, of course). Redford’s relative reticence to appear on screen in the years that he spent building the Sundance brand has made of him a quiet mentor figure rather than another embarrassing New Hollywood hangover. Chandor is one of Redford’s many Sundance Kids, and he’s a prodigious son, a smart operator who isn’t above using his father figure to give his old-man-and-the-sea yarn some extra-textual ballast. Like David Lynch’s sublime The Straight Story (1999), Chandor’s film is an earned sentimental journey, no matter that it substitutes Redford’s twilight handsomeness for Richard Farnsworth’s considerably more homespun mug. Offering up the grim spectacle of an icon being broken down piece by piece, All Is Lost collapses the gulf between audience and movie star more effectively and affectingly than any film I can remember.