Oct 18, 2013

All Is Lost

There are two movies this season that are very similar in their preoccupation with man against the immensity of nature, where human accomplishment is suddenly brought to its knees and made to eat major humble pie.
All Is Lost, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is like Gravity at sea. But in contrast to the more jokey, commercial endeavors of Gravity, it is a much more sober film, and an impressive writing and directorial improvement for Chandor, after his first film, Margin Call.
Robert Redford has never been the most expressive of actors, but he is perfectly cast and very effective as Our Man, a lone, rugged sailor who is somewhere in the Indian Ocean on a nicely appointed sailboat, when he runs into trouble. We know little about him, and he says even less during the course of the movie. His character is revealed  by all the decisions, big and small, he makes to survive.
The individual choices Our Man makes are small, methodical, but essential steps he takes to salvage his boat and keep himself alive. This is not a visceral movie. It is beautifully shot, and at times everything seems a little too perfect (curiously, the lens never gets wet, even when the storm is raging), but it does give you the sense of what it is like to be alone and surrounded by merciless water, whether under the cruel sun or tossed about in a vicious storm. One learns a lot about the kinds of things you could do in case you're stranded in the ocean like Our Man. With any luck, you will have an extremely well-equipped boat, like he does. And even then, all that man made ingenuity and wealth of resources may fail you.
All Is Lost reminded me of the power of visual storytelling, which is how movies began. The movie is transfixing without dialogue. Our Man is extraordinarily self-possessed, considering his dire circumstances. Clearly, he is a man of few words, even when alone against nature. Chandor has written an elegant, economical script and has wisely resisted the temptation of giving too much information to the audience or plucking too much on the heart strings. This is not a sentimental movie. Chandor gives the audience the opportunity of filling in the blanks of the character, something that is usually absent in commercial films, which refuse to leave anything to the imagination.
At the beginning there are clues as to who he is to others. And because he is so precise in his behavior, and so true to character, one can come up with an interesting back story. I imagine he is wealthy, a titan of industry, used to everything going his way, a leader, who when faced with imminent extinction, does not panic and methodically tries to fix things. This is in stark contrast to Clooney's and Bullock's gabfest in Gravity, and it is so much more mysterious and interesting. I could have used a little more panicking from Redford, who has one fabulous moment where he finally loses it, and with good reason. But because he so clearly establishes who he is by how he does things, his sangfroid is coherent with the character, if not entirely believable at all times.
All Is Loss plunges us into chaos immediately. We experience the ups and mostly relentless downs of this man's losing battle against the ocean. There are some inspired images, like a flock of floating sneakers bobbing out of a stray container, or Our Man wading almost dreamily inside the flooded boat to retrieve a spoon and a fork. He is a fastidious, refined man, and not about to become a savage just because he is lost at sea.
The sound design is fantastic. The cinematography, both over and underwater, is gorgeous. Alas, there are a couple of moments that undermine the very thoughtful craftsmanship and conceptual approach of this film. The music at the beginning is very good; just a couple of menacing chords that blend seamlessly into the terrifying sounds of invading water. I was thanking Chandor in my head for being extremely adroit with the use of music, when out comes a sequence where the music blooms into a horrid, cheesy melody that has Our Man covering his ears in despair. It isn't clear if he is hearing it in his head, in which case he is right to loathe it, but it happens at a key turning point and it shatters our illusion of being there.
Similarly, some people may feel the ending is a cop out, but, even if it is a bit contrived, it is handled with grace and understatement, and it is justly rewarding.

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