“All is Lost” comes closer than any movie I’ve seen recently to great literature, in that it invites examination.
In the film, which was released last fall, Robert Redford is the only character in the entire movie, and we’re told virtually nothing about him--his name finally comes in the credits as simply “Our Man.” He’s sailing alone in the Indian Ocean when a shipping container crashes into his vessel, and the rest of the movie is him trying not to sink and/or die. Oh, and there’s almost no talking in the film. Though this may not sound exciting, it’s actually mesmerizing.
Look, great art illuminates the human condition. Quality movies, music, poetry, literature, paintings, or abstract exhibitions teach us about ourselves, and “All is Lost” is a Rorschach test; what you see in it, the ending, and Redford’s character will depend on your state at the moment, your personal history, and your perspective. You’ll learn something about yourself by investing in this movie, and if that’s not enough reason to see it, I don’t know what else to offer you.
Like the Paul Thomas Anderson epic “There Will be Blood,” which, despite a full cast, almost functions as a one-man show due to the towering, dominating, and Oscar-winning Daniel Day Lewis performance, or the outstanding Jeff Nichols film “Take Shelter,” “All is Lost” works adroitly on multiple levels. In “Blood,” there’s the surface reading, about an acquisitive oilman who ruthlessly consolidates power at great personal cost. There’s a deeper level, about avarice corrupting the soul, and, finally, there’s the deepest impression, where win-at-all-costs, vertically-integration capitalism chokes out--then kills--old American frontier spiritualism. In “Shelter,” all revolves around a storm, but that storm may be literal or figurative--or both.
I had multiple professors in graduate school at DePaul University emphasize to our classes, “Show, don’t tell,” and the director of “All is Lost,” J.C. Chandor--whose first feature was the superb and riveting “Margin Call”--shows, rather than tells, marvelously in this, his second feature. We watch as Redford fixes problems, only to have another spring up, and then go about rectifying that setback.
Like “Shelter” and “Blood,” you can enjoy the movie perfectly well even if you don’t look into it any deeper than what’s right in front of your face. As simply a man trying to stay alive all alone on the open ocean, it’s a harrowing survival tale.
But, then, there’s our history with the man playing the protagonist to contend with: Redford has been a screen presence for over 40 years, and he’s officially acquired legendary, iconic status. So, is he, perhaps, a stand-in for all the other Baby Boomers he represents?
Redford told Maureen Dowd for a New York Times piece in October 2013 that, “There was so little described of the guy that, of course, it had to be me.” He even wore his own silver and turquoise ring in the part. As those in Redford’s generation get older and come to the end of their lives, is his battle to live a Dylan Thomas situation--”Do not go gentle into that good night//Old age should burn and rave at close of day//Rage, rage against the dying of the light (...)Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight//Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay//Rage, rage against the dying of the light”--for an era? The only prolonged speech he has is dictating final thoughts, and, admitting myriad flaws, he emphasizes, “I fought 'til the end, I'm not sure what this is worth, but know that I did.” Redford seems particularly taken with that fight. While speaking with Dowd, he quoted T.S. Eliot, saying, “There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Maybe most importantly, though, he’s a mirror for all of us--not just an aging population. Instead of “Our Man,” he’s really Everyman. That’s why we’re told so little about him. We can project ourselves onto his character. How we can be rolling along comfortably and then, boom, a shipping container tears into our lives. The container in “All is Lost” is filled with tennis shoes, but, the container blasting unexpectedly into your life could be loss of a job, an illness, death in the family, or a tornado that wipes out your house.
And that’s just analyzing the character. What of the themes? (I made an academic career out of analyzing characters and themes, so please indulge me.)
Is it a film about how America isn’t isolated, how global markets affect us profoundly? Tremors in other continents now have just as much effect on the U.S. market as something that happens in America. The American character is sleeping in his cushy boat when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a wayward Chinese shipping crate rams into him, throwing his life into turmoil.
Or maybe it’s the way massive conglomerates have crowded out the rugged individual? Instead of providing life-saving assistance, Redford is passed by two massive, international shipping containers as if they don’t even notice him. When he rigs up his own personal fishing line and finally gets a bite, a shark comes by to eat his catch as he’s trying to reel it in. And, the fish swimming below his raft keep getting bigger; it starts with a school of tiny fish, then larger ones move in after the school, and they finally give way to the apex predators--sharks. Eat or be eaten. Only the largest can survive. There’s no place in this world for the little guy.
Then again, maybe it’s not economics--maybe it’s about implacable nature. The skies, sea, and sun combine for an unholy triumvirate that “Our Man,” for all his genuine ingenuity, cannot best. Nature doesn’t care about you, and it will defeat you. Here there are shades of Stephen Crane’s famed short story, “The Open Boat.” How foolish we are to think we can control nature. Climate change is nature showing us who is really in charge, just as nature takes Redford’s boat, his confidence, and his will. His efforts to quell the inexorable force border on the quixotic.
(One final note. With the impeccable sound effects and a Golden Globe-winning Alex Ebert score, this film is meant to be seen in surround-sound on as big a screen possible. Do that; don’t cheat yourself.)
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan