Monday, October 21, 2013

All Is Lost (****)

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor


The theme of survival has been explicit throughout the heavy-hitting October releases. Gravity put a frail biomedical scientist against grave odds to survive being lost in space. Captain Phillips showed one man's attempt to maneuver his way out of a dangerous kidnapping scenario. And just this weekend 12 Years a Slave showed how a free man turned slave has to find ways to stay alive just long enough so that his free status will eventually be recognized. The survival theme in 12 Years is most prevalent, with several characters commenting on it throughout, but in all three of those films the hero had a very definable destination they meant to reach. They knew the process and they knew the route to the position they coveted. All is Lost follows a man without any idea of how he will escape. He's a resourceful man, fully prepared for the elements that he faces, but it's nothing in the face of mortality. His actions seem to only prolong the inevitable, each action adding only mere seconds till the grips of death reach, which makes All is Lost the most gripping portrayal of survival yet.

Our man in All is Lost is played by Robert Redford in what is probably the most devastating performance of his career. The director, J.C. Chandor, knows what he's doing in putting Redford in this role, and that because of that decision the film becomes a referendum on the film legend's career. Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, but standing up against Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall or any of the other big-name actors that made themselves in the 70s alongside him, it always seemed like Redford was lacking as a performing talent. DeNiro was a serious actor, Redford was a pretty face. But Redford was instrumental behind the camera, directing at least two wildly entertaining films (Ordinary People and Quiz Show), and eventually became the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, which has recently become a conveyor belt for the Weinsteins to pick up cheap talent but was originally a revolutionary idea that gave more power to the independent filmmaker than anything had before then. Still, there was never a single performance that stood out for Redford, the actor. All is Lost may call an end to that.

The first time we see Redford, he sleeps soundly in his cabin as water violently rushes below him. As he awakens and scurries outside, he sees his yacht has careened into a massive, bobbing shipping container filled with sneakers. He doesn't panic, his face barely registering how precarious the situation has become now that there is a gaping hole busted into his boat's hull. Instead, he moves methodically, managing to get the boat detached from the container, pumping the water from his cabin and then making his own adhesive out of supplies from his boat to patch up the hole. Within twenty-four hours, he has totally stabilized the yacht, and even the floor of his cabin is dry. But the electricity is dead, and both his computer and radio have both been fried by the water. He has no way to make a proper S.O.S. call and no way to guarantee that the patch on the side of his boat will keep the water out forever. And then a storm approaches, one that would cause all kinds of trouble even before all of the previous circumstances.

Redford's character is nameless (after the movie, he's credited as "Our Man") and without even a semblance of a backstory. Everything we learn about him is in the events that we witness and we learn quickly how totally comitted he is for a life of solitude. His creativity and instinct keeps him alive minute-by-minute, even when a violent storm begins flinging his boat around like a rag doll. Looking down into what used to be the ceiling window of his boat cabin and seeing the endless abyss of the ocean would send anyone else into catatonic shock. Instead, he moves to get the boat back on its right side. In the film's second half, his boat is destroyed and he's resigned to life on a floating lifeboat, with only a few rations of food, a navigating telescope and a map where he's able to track his position. He sees enormous shipping freighters, but his flares make no impression on them. Then there's more storms, more dangerous fish swimming underneath and food gets lower and lower. Before he knows it, his will is on the verge of breaking.

This is the second film from J.C. Chandor. His first film, Margin Call, was an ensemble-led dialogue marathon which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It's tone is so diametrically opposed to All is Lost that it seems deliberate. To be honest, Margin Call is one of the few movies I've seen in the last decade that I actually fell asleep in the middle of. And what I saw wasn't compelling enough to convince me to give it another go. Chandor is a young filmmaker who's shown a lot of polish, even if he hasn't shown a terrific amount of style, and when I heard of the plot of All is Lost I harkened by to my Margin Call experience and thought I was doomed to an incredibly unpleasant experience. Instead, this film, in which Redford speaks perhaps fifteen lines of dialogue, is so much more compelling. The filmmaking is still without panache, but Chandor knows that all of the power comes from the Redford's pained, knowing expression. It's an unbelievably mature film. I don't know if someone like, say, Rian Johnson could have shown the same, appropriate restraint.

I thought this was the finest Robert Redford performance that I've ever seen, but I'm not sure how much that really means. What would be my #2? He's so involved in many brilliant American films - All The President's Men, Out of Africa, The Sting - but his individual contributions always seemed to fade along into the fringe. Even his immortal Sundance Kid in the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was so submissive to Paul Newman's Butch, it's hard to imagine a great moment in that movie that doesn't belong to Newman. There are no moments that don't belong to Redford within All is Lost though that's mostly because there isn't another living soul in the entire movie. I wasn't sure if I ever knew he had something like this in him. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year, so quiet and reserved yet so very powerful. As the film goes forward, and Our Man is looking death right in the eye, it wasn't my own mortality that I felt compelled by but Redford's, and when I realized that I wanted him to keep fighting for every second of breath that he could muster. If that isn't proof that we all love the man, I don't know what is.

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