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Peril at Sea Double-Feature Part I: All is Lost

Last week I took in not one, but two intense stories featuring great peril at sea: All is Lost and Captain Phillips.

Today I am here to talk about All is Lost.  The film is a fascinating exercise in technique, as it depicts only one single human being on camera from start to finish: Robert Redford as the never-named protagonist.  The movie opens when Robert Redford’s character awakens aboard his small but nice boat, out at sea.  A Chinese shipping container has bumped up against Redford’s boat, puncturing the hull.  Mr Redford is able to extricate his boat from the lost shipping container, and quite ingeniously he is able to make a decent repair of the hole in his vessel.  But it turns out that the water that came into his boat through the hole has fried his computer and radio, and indeed all the boat’s electronics.  A terrible storm that comes a few days later takes his situation from bad to worst, and soon Mr. Redford’s character is in a desperate struggle for survival, alone at sea.

All is Lost is very well-crafted and extraordinarily well-directed.  The film is haunting in its austere beauty and intense, you-are-there no-frills realism.  I am very impressed by the work of writer/director J.C. Chandor (whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film).  All is Lost is a bold undertaking of style and format, but while those aspects provide an intriguing hook for the film, the movie is more than just an interesting exercise.  It breathes as a complete, viscerally-affecting story.

All of that is because of the incredible skill of Robert Redford.  Mr. Redford is the reason to see this movie.  At 77 years of age, Mr. Redford is still an actor of tremendous skill, and this is a powerhouse of a performance.  Not only is he the only person on-screen for the entire run-time of the movie, but after a short opening monologue that we hear over blackness at the very start of the movie, there are less than ten lines of dialogue in the whole rest of the film.  The entire story of the movie plays almost completely over Mr. Redford’s face, and in his eyes.  It is wonderful.

One of the film’s stylistic quirks that I alluded to above is that the story starts at the exact moment that Mr. Redford’s character’s ordeal begins, and ends the moment that ordeal ends.  This is a very interesting approach.  By telling us nothing of Mr. Redford’s life before the accident that punctures a hole in his boat, the film keeps much of his character and his past a secret from us.  This focuses us in on the intense experience of his ordeal, but it does keep the character at somewhat of a remove from us.  (I will get back to this in a moment.)

I also want to say a word  about the film’s ending.  I will be vague, but those wishing to avoid all SPOILERS should skip this paragraph.  The moment that the film ends fits perfectly with the way the film begins, which makes sense within the stylistic exercise of the film’s structure.  More than that, there is a certain poetry to the moment on which the film ends.  That being said, a part of me really was left desperate to see the very next five minutes of story.  I would have loved to have seen what happened next, and I do feel a little unsatisfying not to have gotten that.

All is Lost is not the crowd-pleaser that Gravity — a very similar story — was.  That’s a movie that I cannot wait to see again.  All is Lost, on the other hand, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, isn’t a movie I see myself rushing out to see again.  It’s a much colder film, and for all its strengths, it keeps the audience at a bit of a distance, never really telling us anything about the central character or allowing us to get to know him.  That is an intentional choice, it seems to me, and as I wrote above it is all part of the film’s intriguing stylistic choices.  I respect and admire the film a little more than I actually love it, if that makes any sense.  I am reminded somewhat of There Will Be Blood, a film in which I think the central extraordinary acting performance — that of Daniel Day Lewis — was stronger than the actual film itself.  The film was very good, but that central acting performance was magnificent.  I would make exactly the same assessment of All is Lost.

Next up on my “peril-at-sea” double feature: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips.  See you back here on Wednesday with my review of that film!

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