By Kyle Osborne
Tom Hanks had a volleyball to talk to. Sandra Bullock had “Houston in the blind.” But poor Robert Redford, the only, and mostly silent, character in “All Is Lost” has nothing but his inner thoughts (which are unheard by the audience). He’s stranded at sea, his impressive sail boat having been struck by an errant cargo bin, which has punched a gaping hole in the side of his boat. The boat is taking on water and Redford is wading into the fray, trying to fix things and literally living from moment to moment. He fixes one thing, only for something else to go wrong–a cycle that repeats itself until, it seems, there is nothing left to go wrong.
Everything we know about this character with no name (in the credits, he is simply referred to as “Our man”) is through our own observations–there is no “exposition”, per se. We can see that he’s a very experienced sailor, and probably very well off, financially. Somewhere, somebody cares about him–we know this because we hear his voice reciting a letter he’s written to leave behind for—for whom? We will never know. Which brings me to my main complaint about a film that has been assembled with great skill, and is well acted by Redford.
I saw “All Is Lost” a week or two before seeing “Gravity.” But it took seeing ’Gravity’ for me to realize what was missing about ‘All Is Lost.’ Director and Writer J.C. Chandor presents us with a magnificently shot and edited film, fraught with tension. What he pointedly has not given us is a reason to care about this anonymous man with no name. In fact, to the extent we do worry about and root for this man, it’s because of our affection for Robert Redford, himself. Had this role been filled by a highly skilled, but completely unknown, actor–Chandor couldn’t have gotten away with his withholding of so much information from the audience. Would the audience still wish the best for “Our Man”? Of course, but there isn’t an emotional stake for us to have in this story. With minimal, but I would argue, crucial information about Bullock’s character in ‘Gravity’, the audience is given reason to emotionally invest in her character’s fate. It’s probably a key reason why director Alfonso Cuaron’s film is so brilliant, and Chandor’s such a near miss. I mean, essentially, they are the same kind of stories–a person in deep doo-doo, against all odds, must find the inner strength to keep fighting to stay alive.
I remember an astronaut recounting the way in which he answered a question that was surprisingly frequent from those whom he met at various events. The astronaut (whose name I cannot recall) said that people would ask him what he would have done if the worst happened. What would he have done, they’d ask, if the spaceship broke down while he was there on the moon and there was no way back to earth, and he only had a few minutes of oxygen left? Would he take off his helmet and see what happened? Would he frolic and jump around–figuring he might was well have fun during his last minute? The possibilities are many, but astronauts, like experienced sailors, think a different way–the astronaut’s answer was simply, “I’m pretty sure I would have spent that last minute of oxygen working very hard to fix the capsule so that I could use it to get home.”
What Chandor gets perfectly in “All Is Lost” is that kind of realistic, logical mentality. Redford’s character is always thinking about problem-solving; how can he get past this perilous point so hat he’ll be able to get past the next one? That sort of matter-of-fact approach adds even more authenticity to an already believable movie.
It’s a good film, it’s not a great film. I hated the ending, I liked seeing a beloved, 77 year old movie idol showing that he’s still got the chops. I admired the construction of the film, I hated the way it left me cold by not giving me more information about the man on deck. And I liked it better before I saw ‘Gravity.’ I know that’s not fair–but one made me want to go right back in line and see it again. The other made me feel somehow cheated that it not only wouldn’t be direct about its only character, it also insisted on a somewhat ambiguous conclusion.
Chandor has stayed true to his own vision, I suppose, but good luck trying to get this out of the art houses and in front of more eyeballs–that’s not something Mr. Redford wants or needs, but it would have been nice for him to have a big audience for this performance in his twilight years.
“All Is Lost” is rated “PG-13″ and it gets 2 1/2 out of 4 Stars