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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