It would have been wonderful if the marketers of the unique and magnificent “All Is Lost” had been a tenth as artful and accomplished as the film’s director/writer J.C. Chandor and its sole actor, Robert Redford.
When, on its first opening weekend in the biggest cities, the box office figures were far from tidal, it didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that 1) Redford’s gigantic box-office-bashing megastardom is a thing of several decades past and 2) No movie so artfully and uncompromisingly titled (you have to see it to understand the art of it fully) could possibly convert hordes of the unsuspecting into those who line up around the block on a movie’s opening weekend.
“All Is Lost?” Does that sound like a downer or what?
That’s where the art of marketing has to take over. What audiences have to know going in is that for many of us, this is not merely one of the great films of 2013, this is one of the great American films, period. Its peers aren’t just movies like the current great woman-vs.-the-universe smash hit “Gravity” or Rodrigo Cortes’ mind-blowing tour de force “Buried” (in which we see a man struggle to survive while buried alive, lit only by glow sticks and the light from his cellphone) or George Graham’s “Open Sea.”
No, I think the peers of “All Is Lost” go back much farther than that (farther even than the Ernest Hemingway who wrote “The Old Man and the Sea”). It’s a film I wish we could show Melville. Or the Edgar Allan Poe who write “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym” and “Descent into the Maelstrom.” It’s that primally American of a story – one man alone vs. a universe that seems to have decided his existence has, henceforth, been canceled.
His are the direst straits of all.
Redford plays a mysteriously self-reliant and antisocial yachtsman alone on his boat in the Indian Ocean. In the movies of Redford, this no doubt is the “man alone” movie he desperately wanted to make with “Jeremiah Johnson” but couldn’t begin to make when his creative partner was the affable and eminently social Sydney Pollack.
Now, with the extraordinary directorial work of Chandor (whose work here turns what we thought we knew about his talents from “Margin Call” upside down), we are watching a kind of islandless 21st century Robinson Crusoe. No land is in sight. There is no Friday to show up and save him. There is only the unfathomable vastness of the ocean and what Machiavelli once called “fortune’s great and steady malice.” Against all that, one man fights the biggest odds there are.
He awakens on his yacht to find the hull of his sturdy vessel savagely gashed by a metal cargo container that we eventually discover contained sneakers. Water instantly pours in.
Everything after that is a struggle for survival, as he discovers that no matter how extraordinary and admirable his resources can be in a time of unending crisis, a hostile universe can trash them with no apparent effort.
The storm is some of the most amazing weather footage you’ve ever seen. That’s the paradoxical triumph of Chandor (whose dialogue was so sharp and knowing and intricate in “Margin Call”) and Redford. We’re watching a man do all that he can do. But what we’re seeing – and, especially, what we’re hearing, from the malevolence of the terrifying soundtrack – is nature unconcernedly rendering human ability worthless.
A man alone in a vast ocean is too tiny a thing. The scene that seems to prove it conclusively is one of the most stunning and heartbreaking moments in the year’s movies.
So terrifying, frankly, are the storm sounds in the soundtrack of “All Is Lost” that I asked the theater proprietors if they would be able to maintain the volume level of the screening during the film’s run. They said they would indeed. The result is a primal film terror you won’t have felt before.
It should go without saying that the most important triumph here belongs to Redford, an actor who served notice on Day One of his acting career that he would be of the tribe devoted to inhabiting a scene with motion and behavior, not words or psychological states. Interestingly, he’s the opposite as a director.
There are fewer than 10 spoken words in the film’s script. Everything else you’re seeing is the performance of a staggeringly fit septuagenarian whose face registers the thoughts of a man ever-so-slowly crumbling under mounting odds.
“All Is Lost,” he writes in what he intends as his goodbye letter.
What Redford found with this film is an ineradicable chapter in all American film anthologies. It’s also the key that – working backward – we may now use to unlock what he’s been trying to do with his entire life as an actor.
You can’t just judge this film by others from this year; you judge it by how perfectly – and uniquely – it inhabits a primal American subject that has transfixed our art since it began.
Some triumphs are bigger than others – a lot bigger.
All is lost
Starring: Robert Redford
Director: J.C. Chandor
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for dramatic intensity and brief strong language.
The Lowdown: A man, alone on his yacht in the Indian Ocean, fights the most hostile elements possible to survive.