If you’re a student of evolution you’ll know that marine-origin theories for life are common. Afloat the birthplace of our existence it’s pertinent that All is Lost focuses on a man (Robert Redford) in his twilight years fighting for his life. Writer and director J. C. Chandor presents a subtle meditation on mind, body and spirit that’s imbued with an aching amount of futility and loneliness.
An unnamed sailor (Redford) crossing the Indian Ocean wakes to find his yacht has collided with a shipping container. Taking on water, a damaged radio and crippled navigation devices, he’s stranded with violent storms gathering.
All is Lost fits in with the recent run of human endurance test films like Gravity, Captain Phillips, Lone Survivor and 12 Years A Slave, but Chandor’s approach is temperate. Man verses nature is the central conceit as the sailor is tossed around the ocean but it’s never a horrific grind. Instead, it’s an intensely lonely experience with Chandor using minimal dialogue to heighten the isolation, and there is no Cast Away inspired soccer ball for Redford to talk to. It’s all about the menial physical tasks Redford’s character must do to stay alive and the mental fortitude to stay sane. Each obstacle faced by the character strips back a layer of his mental armour, and wearing down the character is extremely laborious so patience is required.
All knowledge of the sailor is gained through his actions and Chandor offers zero backstory to the character. A game of ‘I Spy’ must be deployed to figure out more about the man; the yacht suggests wealth, there’s a wedding ring, and a well packaged sextant signifying a gift from someone who cares. Chandor makes you work for it but there’s a bond that develops throughout the experience as you will the character to survive. Redford’s world weary face against the odds of the situation gives the impression that he could easily give up, but there is an undeniable drive behind those eyes. Redford has the gravitas to amplify Chandor’s minimalist approach and in one scene the actor delivers a sublime outpouring of angst and profanity in one of the lone vocal moments.
The visual metaphors are continually on display and it’s all open to interpretation. The concept of limbo is forever present and Chandor often hints at the sailor being caught between heaven and hell. One sequence featuring the sailor gazing up at the moon from the ocean is heavily suggestive and the ending is obscure enough to launch a thousand hypotheses that cause mild curiosity and frustration. Deciphering the meaning of the narrative will provide all different enlightenment for different people, but there is a lot more to All is Lost than just Redford in a yacht.
The key to All Is Lost is to think outside the boat. Chandor’s restraint yields something quite profound. Let it wash over you.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW