Asceticism is such an unusual commodity in contemporary American movies that it can feel intoxicating to encounter a rare exception. Most mainstream Hollywood films overdose on bombastic spectacle. When we do get subtle and low-key material, it typically arrives in the package of a slice-of-life drama, where the narrative arcs -- not the characters themselves -- are reduced to slightness (think Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation or Josh Sternfeld's Winter Solstice).
Writer/director J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost is also an exercise in onscreen reductionism, and outwardly has the same matter-of-factness, the same warm embrace of the everyday, per Coppola or Sternfeld. But Chandor reverses the formula used by those minimalist directors: He retains enthralling dramatic twists but completely omits character exposition. The result is a kind of universal fable that strikes one as a throwback: It has far more in common with decades-old films such as John Sturges' Hemingway adaptation The Old Man and the Sea than it does with recent pictures, and its closest kin is literary -- it strongly echoes the adventure tales of Hemingway and Jack London, especially London's "To Build a Fire."
Robert Redford stars as the unnamed protagonist -- a sailor floating on the ocean waves, sans hope, minutes from death. On the soundtrack, our hero reads a final missive to the world; he expresses remorse to his loved ones for hurting them, and prepares to enter a watery grave. The picture then jumps back in time by eight days, and an intertitle places us in the Indian Ocean, 1700 nautical miles from the Sunda Straits. The boatsman, lying asleep below deck on his schooner, is suddenly jostled to consciousness by a horrifying crash. He discovers that a steel crate, floating in mid-ocean, has torn a gaping hole into the side of his vessel. From that ominous beginning, the crises mount, including flooding, a ruined ham radio, and blinding thunderstorms. Though the sailor tries everything he can think of to save himself, external challenges ultimately coalesce and threaten to damn him.
Chandor's decisions to pare away backstory and omit his protagonist's name may make the lead character sound pedestrian, but the strategic casting of Redford bumps the saga up several notches and gives it a wondrous dimension. With his square jaw, barrel chest, piercing blue eyes, and tough, leathery skin, the 77-year-old screen icon transcends the limitations of the everyman archetype. And the hero's attempts at self-preservation -- which draw from a seemingly endless reserve of ingenuity (and suggest that this figure is both a veteran engineer and a seasoned yachtsman) -- only bolster our sense of the breadth of his capabilities. Whatever his ultimate fate, this sailor is no Donald Crowhurst-like poser; he's the real deal, a Nietzschean übermensch. And he therefore stakes his claim to be the quintessential surrogate for the struggle that we share vicariously with him. In other words, Chandor has trimmed the adventure genre of its excesses and cut it back to its original roots.
Most interesting is the film's deceptive simplicity. While watching it, you're struck by its straightforwardness and evident transparency, and the slim efficiency of Chandor's scripting and direction. The internal logic is airtight throughout, and each event follows the next with an appallingly direct, guileless, A-to-B sense of cause and effect. But then in retrospect you begin to realize that Chandor has created a saga with far greater depth than it initially appeared to possess: a stunningly profound meditation on mankind's Janusian relationship with nature. On one hand, Chandor and cinematographer Frank G. de Marco revel in the poetry of the mundane. They grace the movie with long-held shots of the sunlight bouncing off of the water, the ebb and flow of the waves, and -- arguably the most haunting image -- the sun-ensconced silhouette of the hero's tiny life raft, filmed from dozens of yards beneath the surface of the ocean. From moments such as these, we instantly get the appeal of the sea for mankind. But the other side of the equation -- the dark half -- drives home the paralyzing danger of natural forces. Those elements of the picture not only recall Jack London, but naturalist writers such as Deborah Cramer, who observed the narrow window of survival that divers experience in the icy ocean depths. Those statements come to mind time and again while watching All Is Lost, and the realization of our own vulnerability in the expanses is that much more horrific as we ask ourselves how much poorer most of us would fare sans the breadth of tools and capabilities that the diabolically clever hero has at his disposal.
All Is Lost therefore offers a rare combination of elements; though it succeeds as a thriller with enough tautness to satisfy genre devotees, it will also please those who seek more substance than that which is offered by most Hollywood adventure yarns. And the presentation throughout is superlative; the movie has the feel of a beautifully conceived and elegantly composed short story with a remarkable and consistently surprising degree of emotional resonance.