Review: All is Lost - Redford's one-man disaster response

All Is Lost is director J.C. Chandor’s second disaster flick. His first, Margin Call (2011), was a chamber piece about the beginnings of the global financial crisis, set at a fictional Manhattan investment bank. Where that film featured an ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore, among others), All Is Lost has just one actor: the septuagenarian Robert Redford as a yachtsman adrift on the Indian Ocean, his boat slowly sinking. At first glance the two films seem entirely different from each other, and yet the destructive force in All Is Lost is, in its own way, global trade. In the film’s opening scenes an errant shipping container gouges a hole in Redford’s yacht; running shoes float out from the container’s interior, forlorn and sodden commodities.

All Is Lost has perhaps two minutes of dialogue scattered across its 106 minute running time, including one very heartfelt expletive. Redford’s character isn’t even named, but he is not an Everyman. For a start he is Robert Redford, ageing yet powerful, and his body radiates a specifically American masculinity. The derring-do of the Sundance Kid is still inside of him. His character is urbane enough to be sailing a substantial yacht, but rugged enough to be doing so alone, “1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straights”, according to the opening title card. Redford’s face is like a piece of weathered sandstone, and upon it we see striations of bleak amusement, determined focus, exhaustion and despair. His yachtsman is competent, brave and resourceful, a man who knows how to work with his hands, but he is fighting a losing battle against the vast indifference of the ocean.

The dazzling Redford smile fails to make an appearance, and we don’t need to wonder why: All Is Lost is an aria of calamity. Just when you think conditions can’t possibly get worse, there comes a new peak of wretchedness — some of it is environmental, inevitable, and some is caused by human error. The CGI storm scenes are perhaps a little overcooked, if only because the rest of the film pays such close attention to the banality of Our Man’s attempts to survive. From beginning to end he labours: patching, rigging, mapping, mopping, and his efforts are amplified by the film’s extraordinary sound design, which also brings to us the ceaseless noise of the water. 

All Is Lost is a testament to the possibilities of digital cinema: a film like this, shot in such close confines, simply couldn’t be made with anything other than lightweight, handheld cameras. There are some beautiful underwater shots in which various sea craft, viewed from below, seem like giant jellyfish billowing across the surface — though one scene of swimming sharks seems grafted in from a nature documentary. At one point Redford re-enters the flooded cabin of his yacht and searches below the waterline for various objects. He grasps at a knife and fork in a submerged kitchen drawer, and there is a great poignancy in his gnarled hands reaching for these implements which are so ordinary, and now so precious.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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