There's something obscene about those Maersk cargo ships. Steaming across the oceans with their stacks of brand-name shipping containers, they look like giant floating toys. For a Somali pirate a Maersk ship is a fat, tacky tourist who carries the promise of a big payday if you can capture it. For the anonymous protagonist of J. C. Chandor's one-man show, it's a false advertisement of salvation, ultimately unresponsive unless you hold a gun to its head -- but all Chandor's hero has is a flare.
The Maersk angle aside, 2013's two great sea-adventure films are an apple and an orange. Captain Phillips is a thriller, but while All Is Lost is often thrilling, it doesn't want to be a thriller. This is a difference in pace and directorial rhythm. Chandor's film strives for naturalism and strives to avoid provoking the conventional audience responses that could undermine its mood. The trick is not to have too much happen to the hero at once. His troubles begin when a shipping container full of sneakers -- did it fall off a Maersk vessel? -- rams his yacht and punches a hole in the hull right at the water line and right where he kept his communication equipment. We see him painstakingly patch the hole before a storm brings his next ordeal. After solving the latest problem, the exhausted hero plops down on his couch. A filmmaker would be tempted to have the patch fail and have the water gush in at that moment or a beat later. The problem with that is that the audience would laugh for any number of reasons, because that's what pop movies condition us to do. Movies have the potential to reduce anything to a sight gag. It takes formidable discipline to resist that potential. All Is Lost is only Chandor's second feature film, but shows a precocious if not masterful maturity on his part as he keeps it from becoming the sort of roller-coaster ride whose jolts are expected, familiar and comforting.
The hero eventually has to abandon his yacht and bob along on an inflatable life raft into the shipping lanes where he hopes to find a rescuer among the massive cargo vessels. Things keep getting worse, but "Our Man" (as the credits call him) continues to prove resourceful, improvising a method to condense fresh water after salt fouls his supply. Resourcefulness will only take him so far, however, and the story strips a prosperous man of everything. He finally sets his life raft afire in a last attempt to capture the attention of another ship. In all this there's a hint of a theme: the unexpected need to communicate with anyone of a man who has plainly isolated himself from others to sail alone. This need culminates in both the virtual self-immolation and a message set afloat in a jar, the text of which actually opens the film and includes the title phrase. The note is an apology for his life, not just for his then-presumed failure to survive. The note gives little hint of what he has to apologize for, but it creates a kind of contextual backdrop to the protagonist's ordeal in the laconically suggestive manner of Ernest Hemingway. All Is Lost is one of the most Hemingwayesque films ever made -- compare it to the film of The Old Man and the Sea and it's more Hemingway than Hemingway.
That puts quite a burden on Chandor's old man, but Robert Redford has emerged as a favorite for the Best Actor Oscar, which would be his first in a career that has earned him only one previous acting nomination along with his directing Oscar for Ordinary People. Inevitably All Is Lost looms as an occasion to give Redford a "career achievement" award for acting, but that's not a sure thing. Steven Spielberg and the rest of the jury at Cannes saw Redford do his thing last spring but gave the palm to Bruce Dern for Nebraska. Apart from Dern, the competition for Best Actor has shaped up very strong this year. Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave have made major claims, while Dallas Buyers Club shapes up as a climax of Matthew McConaughey's long campaign for respect as a character actor. Against all of the above, Redford works with a seeming handicap; his reading of the note at the start of the film is not just the biggest but the only speech he gets, and the note gives all the backstory about the man that we'll get. All Is Lost has been criticized for that lack of backstory, as if to prove Alfonso Cuaron correct in giving one, however generic, to Sandra Bullock in Gravity. The implication of the criticism isn't flattering to the critics, since they seem to be saying that they can't empathize with Redford's ordeal unless they know something about him. Apparently they identify only with humans in particular rather than humanity in general, but I don't get how anyone can watch the film and not identify with Redford, who at age 77 does enough of his own stunts to earn empathy even before we judge his acting. If he gets the Oscar he won't have to do push-ups like Jack Palance did to prove that he isn't dying. His performance is as purely physical as anything in any action movie; the craft is in his complete credibility as a doggedly competent figure who cracks but never quite breaks under epic pressure. Redford and Chandor give us a compelling portrait of a man who reaches the limit of his self-reliance and may finally realize that his self-reliance limited him in life before he sailed. I've yet to see all of Redford's competitors, but right now he's the man to beat in my book.
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A word about the ending. It's hard to call this a spoiler, since the ending was clearly designed to be interpreted in two different ways as a matter of audience preference. Depending on how you look at it, Redford is rescued at the very last moment -- just before the credits roll, without the aria of shock Tom Hanks gets or Ejiofor's poignantly ironic apologies to his family-- or else he "goes into the light" to clasp a spiritual hand in his character's last moment. The ambiguity doesn't seem consistent with the tone of the film; a literal rescue would be more so but might seem too good to be true after all we've seen. The ambiguous finish suggests that the film's about something more than whether the Redford character lives or dies, and that the meaning remains the same regardless of his fate. I can buy that, but the ending still feels like a slight failure in the honesty (or verisimilitude) that has characterized the picture to that point. I also think Chandor can get away with it, because his filmmaking has been so good that our approval shouldn't depend on the ending. All Is Lost could hardly be more different than Chandor's Wall Street ensemble picture Margin Call; together they make him one of the potentially great American directors of the 21st century.