REVIEW: All Is Lost [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: October 18th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions
Director(s): J.C. Chandor
Writer(s): J.C. Chandor

“I’m sorry”

If writer/director J.C. Chandor‘s goal was to ensure he didn’t get pigeonholed into one type of cinematic style and/or genre, his sophomore effort All Is Lost surely does the job. Hot off a breakout Sundance debut with the expertly written ensemble piece Margin Call—earning an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay—the rising star found himself face-to-face with festival founder Robert Redford to inquire about hiring the legend for his follow-up. It was to be an almost two-hour piece set entirely in the Indian Ocean as a solitary sailor battles Mother Nature and an abandoned, floating shipping container of sneakers for survival. Yes, the newcomer lauded for his screenwriting decided his second foray would be a 31-page script containing one character, one setting, and one lone f-bomb of frustration once the title comes to fruition.

It’s a daring endeavor to say the least—a gamble for director and star as far as the rigor needed to make such a project captivating throughout. There isn’t a volleyball or tiger for Redford’s unlucky septuagenarian to converse with and his rudimentary communications system is all but destroyed during his first of many arduous trials. The only thing keeping him occupied is the vigilant attention to detail necessary to stay afloat despite a large gash in his hull and a scarily violent storm brewing. He’s always thinking; preparing for the worst as he fills a plastic jug with fresh water and battles the forceful winds and rain to put up his storm sail. All for naught, the boat eventually flips 360-degrees, rendering him unconscious, reopening the breach, and proving the end may truly be neigh.

I’ll admit to being worried while watching Chandor slowly pan across an unrecognizable, corrugated object bobbing in the water at the start with Redford’s voice reading a letter he’d wrote without hope. The visual is an ominously dark one precipitating the rewind to “Our Man” waking eight days previous to a waterlogged sleeping quarters and the thing abstractly scene in the opening now fully formed as the aforementioned storage canister lodged into the wall of his vessel. But something about the speech didn’t ring true. The way Redford spoke seemed staged and awkward in its cadence, devoid of either fear or acceptance of his looming fate in lieu of simply putting lines on tape. Thankfully, once this foreshadowing made its way to the traumatic experiences leading to it, the authentic rhythms of suspense and drama settle in.

Much has been said in the way of criticizing how Redford’s character attempts to turn his situation around as not being the actions of an experienced sailor. To that I must wonder why anyone would assume he was experienced? There wouldn’t be a movie if he were an expert possessed with the knowledge to do something different and therefore increase his chances of getting to shore before the skies opened up and all hell broke loose. All Is Lost isn’t an educational film on what do to if you’re caught in a similar situation—it’s about one man courageously fighting for his life in circumstances most probably would have died from straight away. The fact he doesn’t drown five minutes in isn’t to prove he’s an expert; it’s to portray his mettle and tenacity.

Redford’s sailor has the wherewithal to ingeniously detach from the container, shellac the boat’s hole shut, and dismantle his radio to hopefully get it dry enough to signal for help. He’s calculating and calm, marking off an internal checklist in order to regroup and regain control. Even when the first storm arrives to physically pummel he and his ship, there is less fear than disappointment. He still has contingencies to utilize and a navigational know-how to will himself onto a commercial sailing channel where someone might notice his presence and stage a rescue. But as one test ends, another takes its place. Carefully laid plans are foiled by silly mistakes brought on by fatigue and every step forward can’t help but seem like two steps backs until self-destruction becomes his last chance.

Shot entirely at Baja Studios—the sound stage and water tank built for Titanic—Chandor is able to keep his camera in close on Redford so that we feel each jostle of the waves and piercing droplet of rain pouring down. The scenes in which the ship turns around are unforgiving with the actor’s speed at crawling against the spin never outrunning the objects falling on top of him or the disorienting sense of balance making stability impossible. Redford is blasted in the face with water, picked up and thrown into the tank with relative ease, and constantly struggling with the need to breathe. At times it appears fate only lets him find air in order to beat him down once more, prolonging his life so that he may be punished again and again.

While a necessity to sustain the torture, this is also my gripe against the whole. Similar to Gravity’s unavoidable monotony—the two films almost identical in pacing and story beats with an epically crescendoing score by Edward Sharpe and the Magentic Zeros’ frontman Alexander Ebert providing an identical release of tension at this one’s end—you begin to see the artifice of one tragedy leading to another poke through. Chandor keeps it riveting and Redford embraces the challenge by delivering a powerfully captivating and sympathetic performance, but at some point during his duress you tediously think, “here it comes again”. I’m not sure this is avoidable nor if my seeing it late at night caused my own fatigue to prevent fully embracing the experience. Either way, while a great cinematic feat, the Best Picture buzz may be hyperbolic.

[1] Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s ALL IS LOST Photo Credit: Daniel Daza
[2] Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s ALL IS LOST. Photo Credit: Richard Foreman
[3] Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s ALL IS LOST Photo Credit: Daniel Daza

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