It might sound like an exaggeration to say All Is Lost is very nearly a perfect movie, but I’m going to go ahead, throw caution to the wind, and venture into this unlikely territory. All Is Lost is the best movie I’ve seen this year though, admittedly, I haven’t gone to the movies as much as I have in past years. But the movie overcomes so many hurdles that it’s hard not to get excited about it; hurdles, not incidentally, that were purposely constructed and laid out and are exhilaratingly shattered. In lesser hands these constrictions would have left us with a snoozer.
A snoozer is sort of what I was expecting. A man stranded in the middle of the ocean, struggling to survive can go very wrong. And I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Redford. But Redford holds his own (if he doesn’t dazzle) in this smart film full of suspense and surprises unburdened by unilluminating and unnecessary backstory. Director J.C. Chandor (who helmed the exceptionally good Margin Call from a couple years back) executes those risks by showing us (not telling) the story of an unnamed man fighting for his life after his sailboat is crippled somewhere in the Indian Ocean. We suppose he’s one of those gentleman sailors who, once retired, takes up the challenge of a lone trip around the world.
We suppose because Chandor doesn’t give us a hint of anything that came before in this man’s life. A brief voice over in the first few minutes of the film (during which my heart sank, fearful that this was a taste of what was to come) gives way to a sparse, objective view of the events. Chandor discards the florid dialogue in favor of a gritty, naturalized narrative. We aren’t subjected to by-the-number explanations of everything Redford’s character is doing; Chandor assumes we’re smart enough to figure it out, eventually. And it’s refreshing to experience a movie that doesn’t spoon feed it’s plot to us.
The disaster starts off when Redford awakens from a hole punctured in the boat, water sloshing in. He finds a stray cargo container lodged into the side of his boat. (We wonder if he considers the irony: The very globalism that made his trip possible also could prove disastrous.) So he sets out to patch the hole and find his way to a port. But the water soaked his radio and laptop. No communication, no navigational tools. Back to the stars for navigation.
One mishap after another makes for an almost comically disastrous trip, but Redford faces them with a stoic resolve. He maneuvers and manipulates the materials at his disposal with a resolve that suggests a man who has spent a lifetime solving problems, though the stakes have never been higher.
I’ve heard complaints that we don’t know anything about Redford’s character. There’s no backstory, they say. It’s true. Chandor doesn’t give us anything about this character other than what we see on the screen – and the choice is glorious. All we need to know about this man is right there on the screen. His reactions, his resourcefulness, and that weathered face that tell us more than a goofy voice over ever could. It’s all there. The experiences of a lifetime distilled into several desperate days. We walk out of the theater knowing this man without knowing the details of his life. We fill that in for ourselves, and probably better than the film could have. The mawkish flashbacks, the son he regrets neglecting as a child, the wife he drove away with his alcoholism are all happily absent. These troubled pasts have become hackneyed. Once filmmakers used them to humanize their characters, but now they just feel like cheap plot points, bought and paid for at screenwriter school.
Chandor has enough faith in the audience to put those pieces together for themselves, a bold calculation in an era of dumbed-down entertainment. It was a gamble, but he pulls it off magnificently and has made a remarkably good film. Movies like this continue to give me hope, they remind me why I slog through all the terrible and mediocre ones. I just wish screenwriters and directors would pay attention, try something new, something edgy instead of churning out the same dreck year after year. Keep it up Mr. Chandor. I’m looking forward to your next film.