A shipping container and a thunderstorm have never loomed over a film quite like they do in All is Lost. The film contains less than one hundred spoken words, outside of Redford’s opening monologue, and contains a nameless protagonist that is lost at sea in the Indian Ocean. We know nothing of his origin, why he is so far out at sea in a sail boat, or why a shipping container has broken into the side of his ship. J.C. Chandor’s film opens with a slow-moving shot across the base of the container, having it envelop the entire screen. As we hear Redford’s man apologize in a diary entry that we see him writing later in the film, we are given the only insight into who this man is. No semblance of occupation, no pictures of loved ones…just a man out in the ocean, trying to survive. How can a film that asks so much of the audience, that is to care about a central character with no true qualities, work on so many levels?
Robert Redford delivers a performance rooted primarily in facial expressions and a sense of humanity that grows with his loss of hope. At the age of 77, Redford shows that he’s still one of the most capable, affecting actors working today; he maneuvers the ship as if he’s been familiar with it for a long while, and he understands what he needs to survive. After water begins leaking into the ship, he navigates the ship properly and enables himself to reconstruct that wall. The electronics have been damaged by the breach and, after reassembling them in hopes of communicating with the outside world, he finds that he cannot reach out to anyone. As we feel the pain with Redford and understand just how lost he may be, we hear thunder. The sound editing and mixing for the film are astoundingly rich, considering the film relies so heavily on dialogue-free scenes; I’m not sure a storm has ever been more terrifying.
The ship won’t survive the storm. That’s obvious from the start, but Chandor keeps the film tense and riveting. His direction guides us through scenes fluidly and often breathtakingly; he frames Redford to dominate the screen, for us to be enveloped in his emotions and his turmoils. For a film with rare bits of dialogue and only one actor appearing on screen, it’s a beautifully engaging feature. Here’s a story of a man’s fight for survival at sea that’s devoid of Hollywood-style filmmaking, something that was once Redford’s strong suit. The film’s inevitably intense conclusion addresses a key question: can someone survive for this long at sea? The protagonist’s survival is addressed in the film’s final frame, and it’s brilliantly ambiguous. There will be conversations on the film’s spirituality, and people will leave divided. Very rarely does a film deliver a perfect, formidable ending, yet All is Lost does just that. It’s a masterpiece.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)