Monday, October 28, 2013
ALL IS LOST Is Harrowing Tale of Survival at Sea
ALL IS LOST Review:
- Coming only weeks after the game-changing outer space survival story Gravity, the oceanic adventure of indie release ALL IS LOST might, at first, seem underwhelming by comparison. All Is Lost does bear some similarities to Gravity - it's a solitary journey - mixing realism with spiritual subtext - and it's a harrowing tale of survival that puts the viewer through the ringer, immersing you there, in the moment, with its lone protagonist. What's interesting about All Is Lost, however, is its starkness and simplicity. This is a movie all about minimalism. Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) doesn't give us anything in the way of backstory. All we know about our main character, a nameless sailor played with gritty determination by Robert Redford, is his moment-to-moment reality. And so, as the film progresses, we become utterly swept up in this character's dogged struggle to stay alive, with no real additional context to muddle the action.
Chandor shoots the film in a very straightforward, un-flashy, almost documentary-esque manner. It's jarring, at first, because it takes a while to acclimate, and to figure out what exactly is happening. That said, the film opens with a somber bit of narration from Redford, which quickly but effectively sets the stakes for the rest of the largely dialogue-free film. Redford's narration - a reading of a last will and testament (to whom - his wife? - we can't quite be sure), makes it clear that the events we are about to see will lead to very, very dire circumstances. But what's fascinating is seeing how those events come to pass.
Because the film is so detail-oriented, so grounded ... Redford's plight is worsened less by melodramatic, cinematic occurrences and more by small but crucial twists of fate, and increasingly volatile conditions to his boat. The slow build works well, and it's easy to place ourselves in the shoes of Redford. What's interesting is that Redford doesn't suddenly find himself stranded in the ocean clinging to a floating board, or suddenly without any food or drinkable water. He has supplies, he has a life raft he can utilize if need be ... so it's a slow, steady descent towards the end of the line. Each decision Redford makes becomes more critical as time goes on. You can see from Redford's acting that internal struggle to accept what's actually happening. There is that desire to hole up in his boat's cabin and act like it's not that bad. But that false sense of security ends when water repeatedly begins flowing into all areas of the vessel. Quickly, each scene of the film forms a practical question to us and to our protagonist. How long does Redford stay on the sinking boat? What food can he salvage, and how? What equipment and materials does he have at his disposal that he can use to survive, to find help, to carry on?
Redford is excellent here. A younger Redford may not have worked in the role, because he wouldn't have seemed like an average-enough guy to relate to. But here, the 77 year old actor's steely determination and experience-derived pragmatism is tempered by the limitations of age. Redford is no superhero in this film. He's remarkably - incredibly - spry and agile for a man his age. We never doubt that he's tough as hell. But the film also doesn't cover up the toll that the physicality of the action takes on the actor or the character he plays. We hear his heavy breathing, we see the pain on his face, we see the effort it takes to do the things that might have come easier to a younger man. That dynamic is key to All Is Lost. Redford still has movie-star charisma at 77, but this film doesn't play it up. Instead, it's a very honest portrayal of a man whose movements have become more deliberate, more labored. Even at 77, this is a guy still tougher than most half his age. And yet ... the actor's age gives the film an added significance - this is to be his last battle, his final test. If nothing else, he's determined to go down fighting.
Again, give Redford credit for a unique performance that tells us a lot without words. The actor's presence infuses this character with a lot of unspoken baggage, but it's baggage that works in the film's favor. This is a man who is clearly proud, likely highly confident in himself, potentially even a touch aristocratic. That makes it all the more humbling for him when he's completely at the mercy of an unrelenting ocean, increasingly helpless against the harsh mistress that is Mother Nature.
Moment to moment, shot to shot, the movie feels grounded - scenes are often composed like logic puzzles, with Redford trying but failing at something, and then revising his strategy and figuring out a Plan B. At the same time, there is that spiritual, existential element to the film. The tight, close-in camera work will occasionally be interrupted by wide overhead shots, or long underwater shots looking up at the boat, or the life-raft, showing us the ocean life beneath. It's a reminder of man's smallness in the context of nature - underscored by the film's spare but ominous score. And it's a theme that becomes more apparent as the film goes on, as Redford becomes more desperate and helpless. That other theme - of one man's final battle - is also there as the movie reaches its climax. The ending is left fairly open for interpretation, and is accompanied by some memorable, haunting imagery.
My complaints are few, but I think there are moments where the film could have used a little more sense of context around the main character's actions. There are times when it's a bit unclear why Redford is or isn't pursuing a specific course of action - with little dialogue, it's understandable that much is left open and not fully explained. At the same time, the movie's grounded, matter-of-fact style occasionally gives way to sudden edits that leave you with a feeling of "but wait, how did ...?". Otherwise, I suppose that the movie's other most obvious failing - that it takes a while to really get going - also plays into its strength as a narrative: all of that build-up creates a real feeling of immersion and realism. When things really get crazy later on, you're all in. The slow build definitely yields a worthy payoff.
ALL IS LOST is ultimately a hell of a tale of survival. Individual scenes have a rugged, you-are-there, no-frills quality that fully sells you on the on-screen action. The parts, however, add up to a whole that is not just about the practical means of surviving while stranded at sea, but a striking meditation on life, death, and the will to survive.
My Grade: A-