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All Is Lost

“All is Lost” opens with the only speaking sequence in the entire film: the narration of a goodbye letter from a man to his family, apologizing for his shortcoming and letting them know that he was thinking of them when he died in a lifeboat on the open ocean.

It serves as an introduction to the only character in the film, played by Robert Redford, but not really. When you think about it, what he writes is pretty general.  He wishes he had been kinder, more patient, easier to get along with. But he doesn’t say anything unique or specific; a million and a half men in America could recite his apology. (And recited better. Redford’s acting in this film is quite good most of the time, but this reading is terribly, terribly stagey.)

And so we know basically nothing about him. He is Everyman, or, as the credits list him, Our Man, devoid of details, more a symbol than a character. He represents something.

After that little speech, we cut backwards in time a ways, to the beginning of the problem. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Our Man has run his little sailboat into a stray shipping container full of kids’ shoes.  It puts a sizeable hole in his boat, but not one beyond repair, and does his best to fix it up and sail on.  But things go from bad to worse, until… well, until the final message in a bottle.

In broad strokes, “All is Lost” is a nearly wordless man vs. nature story, reminiscent, for sure, of “The Old Man and the Sea” but also reminding me of more recent films like “The Grey” and “127 Hours.”  There are a ton of movies in this vein, pitting a man against impossible circumstances, and showing that the human spirit’s drive to survive is stronger than a pack of ravenous wolves.

But after a closer look, I’m not at all sure that’s what “All is Lost” is about.  In fact it might be a subtle commentary on that kind of thing, and its general foolhardiness.

Let’s start with Robert Redford. 20 years ago, he would have been the perfect actor for a man vs. nature flick. He is, without a doubt, a cinematic symbol of American masculinity, right up there with Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris. But the guy is 79 years old, and he looks it. (Well, almost. Truthfully, he looks about ten years younger than that, but he is Robert Redford.) I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but there are definitely moments when Our Man looks old, exhausted, and a little too old to be out there on the ocean alone. He looks like a man trying to prove — to himself, to the world — that he’s not that old.

And then, on top of that, he makes a series of mistakes that add to his predicament. Some of them are obvious to the viewer: I’ve never sailed a day in my life, but I don’t get why he lets more water INTO the boat before fixing the hole, or why he decides to shave when a big storm is coming and his boat isn’t ready. I read a few articles from sailing blogs that pointed out other, less obvious mistakes, and most of them agreed that while he doesn’t do anything incredibly stupid, he’s a pretty careless sailor, and his carelessness gets him into trouble.

And so what emerges, at least for me, is a pretty different picture of Our Man. He is not Everyman in a cosmic/symbolic battle against the savage forces of Nature.  He is an aging, upper class (it’s a nice sailboat) American who has probably never sailed his boat out of Chesapeake Bay, but has always wanted to.  Aware that he’ll soon be too old for a big adventure, he seizes a final chance, and attempts to sail around the world solo. He’s a competent enough sailor that, as long as nothing goes too wrong, he should make it just fine. But he’s deceiving himself about his skills, and the danger of this endeavor, and when things do start to go wrong, he has neither the experience nor the skill to pull things back together.  And so, before long, all is lost.

Now, granted, that’s a lot of speculation on my part.  I’ve taken a few clues I saw scattered through the movie and used them to sketch a character profile. I could be a million miles from director’s J.C. Chandor’s intent (though if I am, I’d like to hear his explanation of certain elements in the story.) What emerges out of that sketch, though, is a very interesting picture of American masculinity. Could it be that Chandor is commenting on man vs. nature stories, suggesting that 99 out of 100 men in Liam Neeson’s situation would’ve been eaten by the wolves? That it really takes a superhuman to survive the kind of circumstances these kind of movies put characters into, but because of these movies, we’ve created a cultural vision of manhood that requires superhuman strength, smarts, and endurance, a vision very, very few honest-to-goodness men can live up to, and when real men try to act like “real” men, they put themselves in dangerous, even deadly situations?

You don’t have to ponder these kinds of questions to enjoy “All is Lost” (though, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the movie more if you do ponder them.) Aside from any kind of commentary the film is making, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking.  Despite only one character, it never lags.  Despite the lack of dialogue, it’s never boring. Redford doesn’t need volleyball or an imaginary(?) tiger to talk to; it’s interesting just to watch him struggle to survive, pitted against both the forces of nature and his own mistakes. This is a well-made film, and one that I think is all the better for the sly way it asks some pretty big, interesting questions.

***

Here are a few of the articles I read about sailing:

Six Rules Robert Redford Should’ve Known from Vanity Fair

All is Wrong from the Mirror

What An Annoying Movie

If you read these, you’ll see that, while they point out a few actual errors, most of these sailors assume the production team is making mistakes about sailing, not the character. By assuming the character is making the mistakes, I’m assuming that everything in the film is there because the director wants it to be there. I might be giving the director too much credit, but this is one of my guidelines as a reviewer: I assume everything on the screen is there on purpose. It’s far too hard and confusing to try and review (or even watch) films by guessing at what’s supposed to be there and what’s there by mistake.  

 

 

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