Review by Paul Stathakis | January 9, 2014

A lonely struggle for survival

Sail­ing 1,700 nau­ti­cal miles from Suma­tra Straits in a small yacht by his lone­some is Our Man (played by Robert Red­ford). His open­ing mono­logue is nar­rat­ed and hints at a per­son­al con­flict. Sur­pris­ing­ly, that is one of the rare bits of dia­logue in “All is Lost.” Most­ly word­less, the feel­ing of alone­ness is inescapable. A col­li­sion with a float­ing car­go con­tain­er leaves the yacht in bad shape. The man races against time to repair the dam­age to his yacht but every minute that pass­es seems to bring about oth­er chal­lenges. The man, shrewd and expe­ri­enced, remains calm and opti­mistic. He exer­cis­es all options even as his chances of sur­vival begin to look less great. With time and options run­ning out, the man can no longer ignore the sever­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. Red­ford is out­stand­ing as a man con­front­ed with the prospect of death.

All is Lost” is a fright­en­ing film that cat­a­pults the view­er in the mid­dle of the sea. It puts us in Red­ford’s shoes. To give you an idea, when he sees a white speck that may or may not be anoth­er ship in the dis­tance, we become as alert and hope­ful as him because for 106 min­utes, we too are essen­tial­ly strand­ed at sea. We become just as desperate.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to watch how Red­ford car­ries the entire film. This is a solo per­for­mance by a lead­ing actor. There are no flash­backs to hap­pi­er times or scenes show­ing how and why the man went out to sea in the first place. We’re not even quite sure where he’s head­ed to. The film’s lack of char­ac­ter devel­op­ment does­n’t inter­fere with our want­i­ng to see the man pre­vail in these cir­cum­stances but a lit­tle more insight into the man could’ve made him a more sol­id per­son­age. One thing that is clear from the onset is that the man is not a nau­ti­cal ama­teur because of the things he does to sur­vive. In one scene, he patch­es a hole on the side of the yacht using a glue sub­stance and mesh mate­r­i­al. In anoth­er scene, he finds a way to puri­fy sea water, ren­der­ing it drink­able. The man also con­sumes a great deal of per­ish­able foods, remind­ing us just how impor­tant canned food is when embark­ing on risky expe­di­tions of this nature. But “All is Lost” real­ly earns points for turn­ing Red­ford into an every­day man. His leg­endary sta­tus is not cel­e­brat­ed here. He spends a big part of the movie soaked, weak, wound­ed, sad, and angry. We also feel that he wants to stay alive long enough to see his loved ones again and to put his life back in order. Though we don’t know a thing about him, we don’t have a hard time lik­ing and cheer­ing him on.

The end­ing, it is said, left audi­ences divid­ed at Cannes where it was screened out of com­pe­ti­tion. This kind of reac­tion is not sur­pris­ing pri­mar­i­ly because of the film’s con­clu­sion which is open to inter­pre­ta­tion. In essence, there are dif­fer­ent ways to look at the end­ing and direc­tor J.C. Chan­dor stat­ed in numer­ous inter­views that his inten­tion was to leave room for such debate. He suc­ceeds in doing so. As the end cred­its roll, we’re left to won­der about the clos­ing images. Are they part of an illu­sion? Could it be what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing? If you’re spir­i­tu­al, you may inter­pret it from a reli­gious stand­point. There’s no clear cut answer and an end­ing that main­tains the mys­tery this well is less frus­trat­ing than one that does­n’t. I find myself ques­tion­ing some of the fin­er details. I won­der why Chan­dor, for instance, was adamant about includ­ing 21 frames of white at the very end. In an inter­view with Tele­vi­sion With­out Pity, he explained the rea­son behind it: “It lights up the the­ater in a weird way. But in my mind, it was a way of cement­ing the end of the film and lock­ing it in your mind, so it’s your film. I’m hand­ing it over.” Does he mean he’s hand­ing it over so that we can fin­ish it? If it’s our film, as he puts it rather elo­quent­ly, then it’s also “our end­ing.” I have a cer­tain under­stand­ing of the con­clu­sion that sat­is­fies me as a view­er and oth­ers will sure­ly have theirs as well. The point is that films should make us think or won­der and “All is Lost” does both.


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