For a movie with fewer than 100 spoken words—and to be generous I’m counting a few of the more audible grunting noises—All Is Lost is quite well-written. It’s unsurprisingly well-written, considering its writer-director is J.C. Chandor, whose debut feature, 2011’s Margin Call, showcased punchy dialogue with a writer’s flair, and obviously its combination of financial-industry lingo and repeated exhortations by characters to “explain it to me like a five year old” fell on the opposite end of the spoken-word spectrum from its near-wordless follow-up.
But All Is Lost is just as written, if that makes sense. Instead of concentrating on banter and finessing a way to make jargon comprehensible to untrained ears, Chandor has meticulously scripted the barebones mise en scène of All Is Lost, so that the boat, its contents, and the open water all speak to its captain and his crisis. Not unlike Hemingway—the film’s plot skeleton has generated, predictably, comparisons to The Old Man and the Sea—All Is Lost traces something like a natural progression of the aforementioned “explain it to me like a five year old” ethos. Whereas Chandor admirably transmitted potentially dense, expository dialogue without dumbing down the material in Margin Call, here he accomplishes the inverted feat of elevating simple, stripped-down material that a five year old could easily understand: A man is lost at sea. The challenge faced is basic: Will he survive, and how?
Chandor reinforces his protagonist’s peril through frequent injection of literary symbolism. That this man has found himself hundreds of miles off the Sumatran coast reveals a truth about human nature, that we are intrigued by exoticism and that the bolder among us seek to explore and conquer what has remained untamed. That he is stranded in international waters, outside of all jurisdiction but that of God and Nature, indicates the universality of the dangers encountered when Man finds himself on the far side of the world. That the film devotes moments to scenes of fish in the depths below suggests a certain hierarchy in the food chain, with humans engaging grander threats than the cold-blooded creatures underneath, though the elements of that struggle—the stakes are life or death—are the same for anything that can properly be described as a living being. That Robert Redford plays this man tells us everything we need to know about him, and nothing.
It’s imperative to discuss Redford, who makes for an excellent casting decision. With so little spoken dialogue, it’s incumbent on him, in concert with the props he’s given, to tell us as much as we need to know about his character. Redford is often an aloof or detached screen presence—it’s usually noticeable that he’s thinking something, even if he doesn’t exactly explain what he is thinking—and that quality suits him well here. Typical of Redford, and the movies that utilize him best, he spends most of the film thinking, calculating, and feeling, so the key to the success of his performance is that we know not only what he’s thinking—it’s clear that his character is resourceful and intelligent—but also what he’s feeling, even if he never vocalizes it. It certainly helps, too, that Redford is a good-looking rich dude in real life; he’s the kind of guy you’d expect to go yachting around the world as a hobby. And his age but incredible shape—it’s utterly bewildering to me that Redford is seventy-seven years old—give the impression of a grizzled man who’s extricated himself from trying circumstances in the great outdoors before. (His public image of some environmental activist who would probably be happy for you to believe he lives in a log cabin in Utah contributes to this last effect, regardless of its veracity.) Think how many actors can project smarts, good looks, and ruggedness at a certain age, and silently, and it makes sense why he was right for the part.
Adding to the film’s success in conveying emotion alongside thought is Redford’s ability to command your empathy even though you may not be a rich white man who can afford a sailboat and enjoys the thrill of the high seas. Redford’s character definitely is intended as an object of empathy; according to the credits, his character should be known only as “Our Man,” emphasis on our. He delivers his only monologue—I’m not counting one-word utterances—as the film opens, reading a spare message in a bottle he has penned to, well, somebody, it’s not clear who. “All is lost,” he says. “I’m sorry.” Is he speaking to his family? His kids? Nobody in particular?
Possibly. I wrote above that it’s always evident what Redford’s character thinks and feels, but I’d insert that it’s not always exactly evident why. Surely the immediacy of his situation informs those feelings, but All Is Lost hints at a buried, ultimately inscrutable sense of guilt and banishment. Our Man manages to tell us very much while simultaneously telling us very little. The crux of the film, though, is that we’re asked to judge him only on what we see, precisely because of how little we know. The hole in his boat after it collides with a floating shipping container, the ominous black clouds hovering above, the waves violently rocking back and forth viscerally transcend and precede the reasons behind why Our Man has found himself in the Indian Ocean in the first place and why his lingering emotions compound his situational ones.
There is universality, too, in this simplicity, in this reduction of emotions to the here and now. What the film channels at its essence, then, is less what you would do when you’re lost at sea but what you would do when alone and need to save or redeem yourself. I can’t know exactly why Our Man—or any person—feels the way he or she does, but I can wonder what it would be like to be deserted, to have regrets, and how I’d respond myself even if it mattered to nobody else. We step into Redford’s shoes not by learning how to sail but by considering what we would feel on that boat—this is how All Is Lost manages to be both direct and enigmatic. We don’t know Our Man’s history, but in our limited omniscience we know more about how he would react to extreme solitude than the recipients of his letter.
I’ll draw a final point of comparison—to Gravity. On their surface, both tell like stories, of people left to the elements, grasping to cling to as much as they can in a fight for survival. If it means anything, I’d probably posit that All Is Lost has the better script, and that Gravity is the superior visual experience on the strength of its cinematography and effects. I’ll mention, however, that I wasn’t bothered by the backstory of Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity; I think it was meant to contrast with the film’s title, presenting a woman who didn’t have much to weigh her down to Earth despite the physical force that Newton discovered. But I don’t think this backstory was as well-integrated within the whole as the more literary details contained in All Is Lost, though there is a certain mythological reality to the sheer act of drifting in space. I think we can chalk up the differences between the more fluid symbolism of All Is Lost and the halting changes in tone of Gravity to what the films ask of their lead actors, and perhaps to stereotypes or conceptions of men and women. Bullock is asked to speak through most of her scenes, even when she is alone—a clear contrast—and I was slightly bothered by this, and by these scenes’ outwardly self-motivational quality (more so than by the inclusion of the backstory, certainly). We’re cultured to perceive women as the more emotional gender, and men as the more stoic, and while I could point out the infinite ways I think that’s bullshit in another essay (I think an astonishing number of things are bullshit), I do think All Is Lost subverted this stereotype somewhat: Our first impression of Redford’s character is likely of a stoic, practical man, but his trials reveal him to be as desperate and prone to emotion as any man or woman, in ways both audible and inaudible. I’d finish by saying that I absolutely do think the two films are equals as sonic experiences. Particular to All Is Lost, it’s rather remarkable how Redford’s, and the film’s, dichotomous mixture of silent candor and mystery advances its quiet power.