Is it possible to respect, but not like, a film? If so, director J.C. Chandor’s ‘All Is Lost’ would seem to be a case study. It’s an ambitious undertaking – a tense tale of survival with nearly no dialogue. The story flirts with parable throughout its runtime, asking the age old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? This is as engaging a dilemma as any, but in striving for pure cinema, the film often sacrifices its humanity.
Director Chandor is no stranger to disaster films. His 2011 effort ‘Margin Call’ was one of the best films of that year and featured a thinly veiled depiction of the Lehman Brothers collapse during the 2008 financial crisis. This time, he’s crafted what seems to be an unofficial adaptation of the book ‘Adrift: Seventy Six Days Lost at Sea’, which chronicled the story of Steven Callahan, a man who found himself in an almost identical real-life plot on the Atlantic Ocean in in 1981. The parallels are so striking between the two works that I was curious why this wasn’t a straight-up adaptation.
In the film, Robert Redford plays an unnamed man solo-piloting the Virginia Jean, a 39-foot sailboat on a leisurely voyage across the Indian ocean. However, what starts out looking like a golden-lit retirement fund commercial is thrown into peril when the sailboat collides with an errant cargo container, the impact of which punches a hole in the hull. In the ensuing 90 minutes, Redford endures a nautical Book of Job, dealing with everything from bilge pumps, violent storms and faulty life rafts to 19th Century navigation techniques and sharks. Through it all, Redford barely says a word. We simply watch him think and act as he desperately attempts to get himself out of increasingly perilous situations, and a pervasive sense of doom casts a pall over everything.
Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. While Redford is an iconic screen legend, he’s always presented himself to audiences at a distance. This disconnect has worked well for him in the past, particularly when playing off of the gregarious and spirited Paul Newman in movies like ‘The Sting’ or ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Left completely to his own devices in this solo performance, however, it’s a challenge to connect with Redford’s character. He plays an affluent yachtsman who’s tempted fate by putting himself in an incredibly dangerous situation seemingly out of pride. The role almost begs for an actor capable of bringing more soul and depth to a character who can occasionally seem wooden and undeserving of sympathy. Many critics are currently raving about the scene where Redford finally cracks under the pressure, but to be quite honest, I found myself wishing I could watch that scene performed by another aging actor who could emote desperation and borderline insanity more naturally. I’m not always a Mel Gibson fan, but I’m curious what this movie would have looked like with him as the headliner. The film’s overall lack of feeling is compounded by the directing: Chandor’s restraint as a filmmaker is impeccable, but at times, the result is so dispassionate that we never connect with the human being suffering so terribly on screen.
Amidst all this, I still can’t help but admire the film for the sheer audacity of its approach. An American filmmaker has made an almost entirely non-verbal, technologically advanced dramatic thriller with a film icon. Sadly, it’s this very novelty that impedes what should be an incredibly engaging and intimate depiction of a man desperately fighting to save his own life. Frustrating as this may be, I’d rather see ten foul tips like this than the usual studio bunting we see all too often. While I can’t fully recommend this film, I’ll be eager to see what Chandor does next.