Review: All is Lost (2013)

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Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Runtime: 106 min // Certificate: 12a

I think the best way to describe All is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to his excellent debut effort Margin Call, is “Gravity at sea”. Starring Robert Redford, and only Robert Redford, it chronicles the tale of an unnamed man – referred to in the credits as “Our Man” – who runs into trouble when his sailboat collides with a freight container. Trapped on a boat that is slowly sinking, “Our Man” must use all of his skills to get himself to safety and avoid the deadly storm brewing on the horizon.

At its core, All is Lost is a classic survival drama in that it pits one man against nature; a force that is as indiscriminate as it is unforgiving. Each new problem that “Our Man” faces is a direct consequence of nature’s utter indifference to humanity. The “villain” of the piece, if you like, is harsh, relentless and uncontrollable, and though we’ve seen lots of films that attempt to pit man against nature, few of them do with quite as much verve or respect for realism (daft plot devices excepted…) as All is Lost.

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There are two stars here; the first, obviously, is Redford who gives what might be the best performance of his career – and no, I’m not joking. There are about three lines of dialogue in total, and two-and-a-half of them are spoken within the first two minutes, yet Redford captures his character’s desperation and determination to survive effortlessly. With little more to work with than facial expressions, Redford betrays so much of his character’s personality; we get an idea for what his likes / desires, as well as an insight into what it is that frustrates him. Though we’re told practically nothing regarding whom “Our Man” is or what he was doing at sea (was he racing? Was he just on a trip? We’ll never know…) yet Redford awards him a tangible personality. Sure, he’s hardly complex but with so little to work with it’s amazing just how much Redford allows us to invest in his character’s plight.

The other star is Chandor, whose eye for simple drama gives the film its palpable sense of dread. Chandor’s flair for spectacle is suitably nuanced; he never overplays the drama, yet he always ensures that the threat is lingering in the background, ready to strike “Our Man” at any moment. His wide, horizon-reaching shots grant the film some epic sensibilities, though Chandor tackles them in such a way that we never forget that what we’re ultimately watching is one lonely man, fighting for survival against incredible odds. It would have been all too easy for Chandor to get lost in the drama – the crashing waves, the bitter storm, the wreckage and the debris – but he avoids this by focussing as much as he possibly can on Redford. We know “Our Man” is in trouble, that’s not the point; the point is to offer a character study, and Chandor handles that task valiantly.

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Of course, thanks to the narrow nature of the plot and the focus on one single character, All is Lost is sometimes a bit too repetitive – indeed, the issues that “Our Man” faces start to feel a bit like a “comedy of errors” – but despite this the film is consistently entertaining. Until the last few minutes Chandor’s film is unpredictable, and though there are certain plotholes / conveniences, he manages to direct the audience through a taut and exciting story without ever losing sight of the core drama. The storm sequences are well-crafted and when Redford is alone on his raft, the sense of utter isolation is both mesmerising and terrifying.

However, there is a problem, and it’s one that I was almost certain Chandor would avoid. For all of its tension, this is a film whose great work is almost undone by its ending. There’s a moment about ten minutes before the credits roll where I thought “yes, that’s perfect” and was sure the film was over. Alas, Chandor drags it on just that little bit longer for no real reason, except perhaps to give the audience some cause for hope or satisfaction. It’s not a huge problem as such, but I do think it was wholly unnecessary for the film to end the way it did.

For me, All is Lost is one the best films of last year for two reasons; Chandor and Redford. Their partnership results in a thrilling piece of cinema and one that, though smaller in scale, budget and ambition, more than rivals Gravity in the survival drama stakes.