It almost feels like J.C. Chandor is showing off. In what is only his second feature film, after the chalk-and-cheese financial collapse movie “Margin Call,” he sets himself a kind of exercise in filmmaking rigor, in the bare-bones, one-man survival-at-sea story “All Is Lost” and delivers. From the strong but talky, pointing-at-screens-spouting-financial-mumbo-jumbo of his debut, it’s initially hard to see how we could have predicted the filmmaker’s ability to deliver a much more visceral, physically gruelling, dialogue-free experience. But hindsight is 20/20 and what both movies share is an almost documentary-like immediacy to the material, and a hugely confident filmmaking style, unobstrusive and economical, that belies Chandor’s relative inexperience.
Starting with a voiceover of a note he is writing, (really the only time we hear Robert Redford’s voice, aside from a couple of hoarse cries of “Help me!” and SOS calls) we’re introduced to a man, bobbing 1700 miles off the Sumatran Straits, who has lost all hope of rescue and has accepted his inevitable fate. The regrets and apologies contained in this short voiceover are really the first and last time the film goes for our heartstrings, as this is the only hint we get of the backstory or emotional life of the man, before we spin back by 8 days to trace the events that brought him so low.
The film proper begins at precisely the moment that the nameless captain and sole occupant of a sailboat in the middle of the ocean, realizes that something has gone wrong. Redford, sleeping below deck, wakes up to a rending, grinding noise, to see seawater pouring in through a gash in the side of his boat, as luck would have it in exactly the spot where the craft’s electronic communication devices are stored. He has had the ill fortune to hit a huge abandoned container (full of sports shoes that litter the water’s surface all around), and the initial challenge is to dislodge the boat from the crate, to pump the flooded cabin dry and to repair, as best he can, the hole in the boat’s side to make her seaworthy again. From here things calm down for a spell, until the first of a couple of disastrous storms hit, and both Redford and the boat get increasingly battered and broken.
Like fellow survival tale “127 Hours,” there’s an almost procedural approach taken to the story, in fact if anything “All is Lost” actually trumps Danny Boyle’s movie in terms of the narrowness of its focus. But where Boyle’s protagonist was trapped somewhere tiny and rendered immobile for the majority of the running time, here Redford is trapped in the vastness of the hostile ocean, and is nothing if not active and busy, whether climbing the mast, hanging off the side of the boat, tumbling over and over in the capsizing cabin, or, inevitably on a few occasions, falling in the water. All of these action pieces are brilliantly evoked, with fluid, seemingly omnipresent camerawork recording every new terror with breathless immediacy.
And Redford is very much to be lauded for his unshowy commitment to what has to have been an incredibly uncomfortable filming experience. His weathered face and aging hands too, give the unnamed hero a kind of lived-in backstory without him ever uttering a word, and the physical ease with which he maneuvers around the boat, tying knots and stowing dishes gives us a sense of a man practiced and confident at sea, but still unschooled, once his electronics go down, in the analog basics of sextant and celestial navigation. We don’t get any more than that in terms of his reasons for being here alone, or his lifestyle or career back on land, but what little we do read into the character is down to Redford’s physical commitment to every moment. We don’t even get the hallucinations or songs that “127 hours” used to tell us who Aaron was, let alone any kind of “Cast Away” talking-to-a-basketball style conceit. But while his focus is absolute and absolutely what the role requires, we do have to question whether the whole “if the film we’re in competition, Redford would win all the acting awards” narrative that has emerged here in Cannes is quite justified. Physical element aside there’s not a huge amount of acting done here, just doing, and compared to something as transformative as Michael Douglas in “Behind the Candelabra” for example, we have to say we find it a whole different beast. It’s not, after all, terribly difficult to act wet when you are wet.
Because this is a film that’s above all experiential. It doesn’t boast deep philosophy or intimate characterization. It isn’t even really about the triumph of the human spirit in quite the same way that “Touching the Void” or, again, “127 Hours” are. This is a film about a man doggedly, grimly clinging to life, with no hows or whys given, no causes or consequences for the man’s life on land explored. Really, he’s not so much a relatable character as the pure embodiment of the survival instinct, which does also have the effect of making the film a more ascetic experience than those others. As if to underline this high concept, the picture abruptly cuts to black the very second that the particular experience it’s detailing is at an end.
We love a cinematic polyglot — a Danny Boyle, an Ang Lee — who can switch up genres and moods from one picture to the next. On this evidence there’s a new name to join their ranks, as Chandor who had already impressed us in a very different manner with his first film, here shows himself in a new light, that showcases his technical aptitude and remarkable sense of pacing and rhythm. But the film’s precision of focus is also what stops it from being a more long-term rewarding experience. “All Is Lost” is a taut, superbly crafted addition to the survival story genre, but contrary to some of our colleagues, we rest easy with its placement out of competition in Cannes. It’s a thrilling 100-minute ride that neither asks, nor particularly deserves, to be talked up into something else. [B+]