Sunday, March 9, 2014

All Is Lost

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's practically impossible to watch All is Lost without feeling the urge to compare it to Gravity. Both are survival stories that see their protagonist forced to fend for themselves in a battle against the elements and a race against time. But there are also key differences, the least of which being the setting or gender of the main character. While Gravity tells us everything we need to know about Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone and more than a few things we didn't, this film's everyman (known simply in the credits as "our man") is just that. He's never given a name and we know next to nothing of his backstory. At the risk of trouncing one film to prop up another, I couldn't help but wonder why writer/director J.C. Chandor's approach to similar material seems so much more effective. But the reason is abundantly clear the second we see Robert Redford's aging visage on screen. He'll be doing all the work. Any backstory or superflulous details will have to be projected onto the story by imaginative viewers observing his actions. What he doesn't say is where the story's power lies, testing that screenwriting theory that often the best scripts have the most amount of white space on the page.

The picture is as sparse and bare bones as it gets. At least Bullock had some company for a little while. This is Redford vs. The Sea. But don't dare call him the film's "star," as doing so implies we're getting a movie star turn that again exploits the actor's charisma, charm, or personality. This is instead the systematic deconstruction of all that, displacing the boyishly handsome "Sundance Kid" persona he's been most identified with over the years with a broken down old man. In this film Redford looks every last day of his 77 years and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as this time he answers the call, addressing the most popular career criticism leveled against him. That he doesn't take any risks. His response is a performance that's stripped, not only of all words, but all vanity. 

We join the adventure mid-crisis as Redford's anonymous seaman is lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean and awakens to discover his boat has collided with a shipping container, which has ripped a hole in the hull. And that's just the start of his troubles, as he's lost all navigational and communication systems and has little success patching up the damaged ship. Much of his time is spent putting band-aids on problems, both literally and figuratively, and contending with elements, such as a monster storm that tests his and the ship's capacity for survival. As the days wear on and the possibility of rescue seems less and less likely, the presumably inexperienced protagonist must rely on his own ingenuity to fight the ravages of nature as time takes its toll, physically and emotionally wearing him down.

To say that Redford "holds the screen" or "carries" this would be the cinematic understatement of the year. There's literally no one else in it, and aside from an opening narration and one screamed expletive, there are no spoken lines. What's so impressive is how he manages to do so much with that, both through his facial expressions and the character's exacting calculations in coming up with ideas to prolong survival. We can see and sense the wheels turning inside his head and are capable of determining a great deal about him as a person with no information dispensed to us at all. The best aspect of the performance are all the things he hints that are never revealed. It's not necessary to have a scene showing how he got out there or shoehorn flashbacks because Redford makes you imagine them. You can picture the stubborn man leaving on this trip thinking he has everything under control when in actuality the situation couldn't be further out of his hands. We can assume his boat, the "Virginia Jean" is named after a loved one. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? Whatever that relationship is, we're given tiny clues it's been strained before he set sail. We know nothing because Chandor knows whatever we cook up in our heads will be more powerful than simply being told about it. He trusts us, but importantly, trusts Redford to fill in those blanks.

For the most part, "our man" seems unemotional and confident, at least until things get very bad, and even then, he does a rather impressive job keeping it together. Still, it wouldn't take an experienced sailor to notice he doesn't know what he's doing, much like Gravity's Dr. Stone. But the key difference lies in the fact that while Bullock's character is equally incompetent, she's unwisely portrayed as an emotional mess, highlighting the film's weakness for spelling things out in big, bold letters. Redford's character makes some dumb decisions, but he never comes off looking like a fool because it stems from this false pride and ego we can't ever really get a handle on. That's a very subtle choice, and a lot more intriguing than a tacked on backstory involving a deceased child intended to trigger audience sympathy. That decision ultimately cements this as more a story about humanity and survival than visual effects and technical wonder (which Gravity does provide in truckloads). The technical achievements are primarily in sound,  joining Redford in co-piloting a picture with no dialogue, but plenty of noises that make you feel as if you're on the boat with this man fighting for his life. The score (provided by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Alex Ebert) does the rest of that work and it's haunting, used in just the right doses.

It's hard not to view the Academy's snub of Redford as disgraceful and potentially one of the rare oversights where they'll actually look back in regret. So much of the film's narrative and central character is intertwined with the actor's personal  history and career that you can't help but draw a comparison to Mickey Rourke's nominated role in The Wrestler. An older actor thought to be past his prime fighting to survive and battling back, reminding us why he was so respected to begin. That this film came Chandor, the director of 2011's Margin Call is particularly ironic when you consider how talky and dialogue-driven that film was. This has an ending that will undoubtedly infuriate some who prefer pat conclusions that fail to ask anything of its audience. Even if he whole survival story card has been admittedly overplayed of late with Life of Pi, Gravity and Captain Phillips all causing audience fatigue with the genre, this is too well executed to ignore. The best survival stories are always about more than just survival. By choosing to say nothing, All is Lost ends up saying much more than most movies with supposedly greater ambitions.

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