It seems like this is the year of the survival drama. Whether it was one woman’s battle in space (Gravity), a man trying to survive indentured servitude for over a decade (12 Years a Slave), two men on their own against the zombie apocalypse (The Battery), a man on his own against pirates taking over his cargo ship (Captain Phillips) or hikers trying to survive on a mountainside (The Summit), there have been five really great films screened in the city over past three weeks alone that have all dealt on a basic level about human beings trying to maintain their sanity under punishing conditions. And while it technically debuted before any of the other films on this list (other than The Summit), J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost makes six now, and it’s equally as much of a cause for celebration. It’s the sparsest of the bunch by far, but also boasts an incredible leading performance from Robert Redford, who hasn’t had a role this good since Out of Africa in 1985.
An unnamed yachtsman (Redford, the only human onscreen throughout) is awoken one morning while sleeping on his vessel, the Virginia Jean, by an errant cargo container ramming into the side and poking a massive hole in the vessel. He manages to patch the hole and pump the water out of the ship, but his communication and navigation systems were fried by the incoming torrents. With a storm on the horizon and no way to get anywhere other than to aimlessly drift and hope for the best, the man has to keep his composure and use his boating skills against some pretty tall odds for survival.
Chandor takes a huge step forward in ambition and scope for his second feature (following the much more dialogue driven finance drama Margin Call), but aside from the special effects budget the production remains thoughtfully austere. The film gets off to a fast start, not giving much time to be introduced to the character aside from some foreboding opening narration: a letter written to someone the audience doesn’t know that suggests bad things on the horizon. Over the next few moments, it’s apparent that the film’s hero is accomplished, smart, and graceful under pressure. Within moments of waking up to the leak, he’s already sprung into action. By the end of the second day, things look like they are going to be okay.
But aside from a few glimmers of hope on the third day, it’s clear that the passage of time and the hard work required to keep the ship afloat has takes its toll on the older man. It’s at this point that Chandor becomes quite adept with pacing. As storms begin to batter the ship and the seas begin to roil, all sense of time is lost to the viewer before shreds of hope are. The film becomes purposefully disorienting to reflect exhaustion and to underline how even the best intentions and plans for survival won’t always hold up to the whims of nature, which will continue to do its own thing. It’s never about Redford’s character being an inherently good person or a bad person. He’s a smart person who the audience wants to see survive because it’s a horrible situation. The man’s motives and back story are immaterial.
But while the grandeur of several perilous set pieces are triumphs for Chandor, the effects crew, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, and noted underwater photographer Peter Zuccarini, the pacing slips up a bit with a few too many stressful, Job-like moments of misery that feel a bit tacked on. There’s a logical point where Chandor and his crew can start to wrap things up and it would be just as effective, but it keeps on somewhat unnecessarily. Thankfully, before it starts to get trying in terms of overkill, Redford puts in some extra work to sell Chandor’s film.
It’s almost amazing that no one ever hired Redford to play a professional boater prior to this. His very visage calls to mind an old salt that’s had the alkali of the water settle into the cracks of his face in a ruggedly handsome kind of way. It’s also disarming to just see how natural of a talent Redford can be when robbed of the words that can give him so much charm and depth. It’s incredibly hard work that Redford’s putting, and it’s obvious he’s doing a lot of the literal heavy lifting in and around the ship himself. He allows worry to show through in brief moments early on (a seemingly doomed final dinner on his ship, quiet moments of drinking, a shrug of disappointment after his radio manages to only work for mere seconds), but it builds to a single defining and memorable moment of desperation and much needed catharsis. He’s a man determined to keep fighting, but he’s never sure that he’ll ever be able to hold out as long as he needs to. He’ll do something, get frustrated when it doesn’t work, mope about it for a few seconds, then get back up and try again. It’s uniquely human and a hard thing to convey without boring an audience to tears through what’s essentially a repetitive cycle. It’s also a remarkably generous performance from a veteran actor working with a young director who seems to be on the same wavelength emotionally and thematically.
It’s all quite gruelling to watch, but it’s not meant to be a happy story. The title might have given that much away. Still, Redford and Chandor have crafted an artful look that’s not so much about the triumph of the human spirit, but of the spirit’s ability to endure anything the world can throw at it.