ALL IS LOST Review: The Old Man and the Sea
My favorite TV show from the 1980s is MacGyver. It starred Richard Dean Anderson as something of a government operative who uses intellect – and whatever resources are handy – to get his way into and out of sticky situations. Part spy and part Boy Scout, MacGyver, at his core, is a character built on two key attributes: remaining calm and being prepared. While the central character … make that the only character … in writer/director J.C. Chandor‘s mesmerizing All Is Lost is not a government operative, he is someone who must rely on both preparation and calm not only to get out of a sticky situation, he needs those skills to live … and they still might not be enough.
Robert Redford plays the character simply known as Our Man. At the film’s beginning, Our Man is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean and is jarred awake when his sailboat collides with a cargo container adrift in the sea. The damage is significant enough to cripple the yacht’s electrical system and effectively ruin his phone, laptop, and other key electronics. With nothing but experience and a collection of supplies, Our Man must repair his boat and figure out a way to survive where land is nowhere to be found, all in advance of a coming storm.
I’m a big fan of screenwriters like David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin, writers whose screenplays are supersaturated with dialogue so rich, scenes need no visual; you can simply listen to the words and be satisfied. All Is Lost is the antithesis of that, yet so much more captivating. The film’s hook, for lack of a better word, is that it is 99.9% dialogue-free. Other than a short monologue at the film’s open, an attempted radio distress call, a few cries for help and one expletive, there is no other speaking in the film. This presents a considerable challenge to Redford and the viewer.
For Redford, the challenge is probably the greatest an actor can face: relying only on facial expressions and body language to present to the viewer what his character is feeling/thinking/hoping/fearing etc., and doing it all without looking like a mime. Redford not only rises to this challenge, he gives one of the greatest performances of his career. The subtleties of his facial expressions and the efficiency of his physical movement demand your attention. Faced with crisis after crisis, Redford portrays Our Man as a well-experienced, even handed sailor – one not prone to panic and extremely methodical in his actions. You can see in Our Man’s eyes that he understands the entirety of his situation at all times and knows in what order things needs to be done, from addressing issues to eating and sleeping to preparing for what the coming days might hold. It is an acting masterclass.
Redford also has a challenge unique to him … or rather, unique to someone his age. He was 75 during the filming of this, and the rigors of this role are great. Yes, some things might be edited around, and there is a credited stunt “stand in” for him, but there is no faking the overall physical demands placed on the veteran actor.
As for the viewer, All Is Lost is, by far, the most challenging film I’ve seen in a long time. That’s not to say it’s a tough watch; it isn’t. It’s challenging because it requires a different level of engagement from us that we simply aren’t used to.
The obvious difference is the absence of dialogue and the demand it places on our attention. With spoken lines, we can understand the general gist of where a character is mentally or emotionally by paying attention to dialogue, tone, and other aural cues. Without dialogue, and without watching Our Man closely, we can easily lose the impact of what the character is going through at the time.
There is also the challenge of embracing a lone character. The variety of characters that most films offer allows us to find someone to root for if we don’t warm to the primary character. Consider this year’s delightful The Way Way Back. If for some reason you can’t root for Liam James‘ character, you can find charm in Sam Rockwell or humor in Allison Janney. Not here. Here you are viewing without a net – you have no quirky supporting character to catch you. The film becomes a partnership, really, between you and Redford, which is a nice partnership to have.
If Captain Phillips and Gravity had a love child, it would be All Is Lost. The peril-at-sea comparison to the former was immediately obvious (especially when a Maersk freighter briefly appeared in Redford’s film), but the similarity to the latter very much struck me. There is a significant parallel between Redford’s Our Man and Sandra Bullock‘s Ryan Stone – not in character but in plight. Each finds themselves alone and adrift in a vast sea (of stars vs. of water), each must dig deep internally to carry on, and each must perform externally to survive. The difference between them, though, is that I watched Stone in space, but I sailed that sea with Our Man. That made all the difference.