I’m a big fan of survival movies. The triumph of the human spirit thing is cool and all, but for me it’s the weather. The sheer, uncaring force of the elements bearing down on poor, ragged humans who can only endure and hope for some Deus Ex Machina to come their way. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Upstate New York, where winters have a serious edge. It hit 30 degrees below zero in my hometown this January. There’s something invigorating about looking outside and being reminded that you are, in fact, very, very vincible. I know that some of this respect for Bad Weather was passed down to me by my Dad, whose love of Winter Stories and desire to explore provided me and my brothers with that most wonderful of things, a childhood spent running around snow-covered woods, gleefully whacking imaginary Orcs with big sticks. Then again, maybe I like survival stories so much because they justify my tendency towards lethargy. In the words of The Tragically Hip: “Don’t declare war on idleness/when outside it’s cold and shitty.”
I promise all this personal reflection is going somewhere. All is Lost is a pure survival movie. I say “pure,” because Our Guy (seriously, that’s what he’s credited as) is the only character. No phone calls, flashbacks, or friendly volleyballs. Just one man, doing everything he can to not die.
All is Lost (2013):
The Plot: Our Guy (Robert Redford), sailing alone thousands of nautical miles from any land, wakes up one morning to find that a loose shipping container has gouged a hole in the side of his ship. The cabin is already ankle-deep in water. He calmly assesses the situation, and then figures out how to dislodge the container and repair the hull. Our Guy works swiftly and methodically, with the benefit of a lifetime’s experience. He goes on his way, quietly working to keep the boat in good condition and to repair the water-logged radio. Then a storm hits, and things quickly go from bad to worse, and eventually to hopeless. Our Guy’s efforts to save his ship become increasingly futile, and soon all he can do is try to save himself.
The first line of the film is “I’m sorry.” All is Lost opens with a shot of an overturned boat floating in a calm ocean while Our Guy reads aloud his final letter to his family in a voice-over. We cut to eight days earlier, when All is not yet Lost, but things have definitely started to go wrong. The aforementioned shipping container is the first in a long list of increasingly dangerous calamities. For the audience, it’s a taste of things to come, a way to introduce tension without going overboard (heh). But it’s also a way to show Our Guy in his element. He’s clearly an experienced sailor. He doesn’t panic when things go wrong, and doesn’t waste time in fixing them.
These early scenes slowly give us an idea of why Our Guy is out in the middle of the ocean in the first place. He loves it. The character, as far as I can recall, smiles once. He’s sailing towards the sunset, alone and content. The boat is fixed; he’s put in a hard day’s work. There’s a satisfaction there that even I know. The well-earned weariness that sets in your muscles and joints after a particularly difficult task. The warmth that comes with the knowledge of a job well done. The film does all the work to set up the context for this moment, showing Our Guy working in detail. The payoff comes in the form of that one fleeting smile, and therein lies the strength of Redford’s performance.
Robert Redford manages to imbue Our Guy with real depth, mostly without saying anything. His brilliant performance and some deft touches in the script provide a sketch for us that we can fill in how we please. That opening narration tells us most of what we know about the character’s backstory: he has some regrets, and probably a family. Throughout the film, there are other subtle references to his life in what seems like another world. A card he looks at sadly for a moment, then doesn’t read. A wedding ring. But moments and details like that never overwhelm or sink into melodrama. The script, by director J.C. Chandor, lets Redford’s quiet, reserved performance speak volumes.
Chandor applies that same attention to detail to every aspect of the film. All is Lost has a wonderful sense of place that is absolutely vital to both how we relate to the character and our understanding of the stakes. We’re more invested if we understand the world of a film. It’s a small world this time around, but one full of nuance and, of course, tiny things that can go wrong in very big ways.
After all that weather talk in my intro, I’d seem like kind of a tool if I didn’t talk about the Storm. Chandor, to once again reference that Tragically Hip song, respects Bad Weather. The Storm is all sound and fury, the full force of nature bearing down on a competent, tough man who seems increasingly frail. Our Guy, in spite of all his expertise, can do little in the face of such uncompromising power. He’s cast into the roiling seas more than once, this character who moments before seemed so assured and indomitable. The Storm feels real, and reminds me why I am both terrified by and in awe of the ocean.
I’m running a little long, but before I wrap this up, there’s one more thing I want to bring up:
The Part Where I Talk About Gravity, For Some Reason
I suppose comparison to Gravity—which Alex reviewed back in October—is inevitable, if no longer timely, or all that necessary. What the hell, right?
On a surface level, the two films are remarkably similar: a human person is cast adrift in a terrifying void, pushed to the limits of her/his physical, mental, and spiritual endurance. In terms of character work, Gravity is more up-front. Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, if you didn’t know that by now) needs to decide if she even wants to live, when there’s so little left for her back on Earth. Though we get the sense that Our Guy is distant from his family, there’s never any doubt that he doesn’t want to die. His baggage is secondary to his battle for life.
Whether you prefer Gravity’s tastefully-presented Tragic Backstory or All is Lost’s melancholy subtlety is a matter of personal taste. If you only want to pick one harrowing survival story, Gravity might have more to offer in terms of substance, even if the barrage of catastrophes becomes a little irritating after a while. I preferred All is Lost, in all its bare-bones glory, but then again I’m a Takes His Coffee Black kind of guy.*
Needless comparisons aside, All is Lost is a compelling, stripped-down survival story anchored (heh) by a brilliantly subtle lead performance. Director/writer J.C. Chandor manages to create a sense of place that is vital to the audience’s investment in the stakes, and expertly ratchets up the tension without ever resorting to cheap spectacle. The film’s realism is admirable, but Chandor’s greatest feat is his restraint.
*To continue with the coffee analogy, Gravity is a Strong Cup of Coffee with Just a Dash of Cream and Maybe Like a Pinch of Sugar.