"All is Lost," starring Robert Redford, and only Robert Redford, marks a unique moment in my nearly 2800 titles seen: a story of one character, period; no background information, no dialogue, and about twenty lines spoken at best, most of them in the prologue.
No pressure on the one playing that character…
Here we meet Our Man amid a solo voyage across the Indian Ocean. Based on his age, his demeanor, the well-worn condition of his sailboat, and the fact that he’s out there alone, we can see that he’s an experienced sailor. When a wayward shipping crate chews a hole in his boat’s hull and destroys its instrumentation, he’s forced to rely on his own mettle to survive a tempest and return to the shipping lanes in order to have any hope of rescue.
Does this ambitious premise work? One can argue either way. Many worthy minds give it an A+. For my part, while I didn't dislike it by any means, my practical mind struggled throughout. It’s the opposite of "Buried," which I thought worked extremely well but I couldn't recommend; here for me the film didn't quite work, but I easily recommend you give it a try.
Case in point: while I adored "Gilligan’s Island" as a kid and never missed an episode after school, it always bugged me to death that four of the castaways had enough clothing for five months plus every social and sporting occasion and the odd Broadway production.
The explanation was that it wasn't supposed to make sense, it was just supposed to be fun. But I never saw the two as mutually exclusive, and since I could think of many ways to reconcile it and still achieve the same (and arguably better) result, my adoration was tempered. Same with "All is Lost."
I blame Robin Lee Graham.
At about the age of thirteen, I read a book called "Dove," the autobiographical account of Robin Lee Graham’s ocean voyage at the age of sixteen, in which he circumnavigated the globe, solo, in a 24-foot sloop. It took him five years, and he returned a happily married father of one. Of all the books I read until movies took over after college (it was a bunch), this one remains with me to this day.
Thus when meeting Our Man, Robin Lee Graham was my yardstick. Warning: I’m about to go all Amy Fowler in "The Raiders Minimization" here. Remember, I said you may well enjoy "All is Lost" greatly, so if you don’t want the practical particulars, just jump over Fandango for tickets now.
"All is Lost" took on water for me in that the expertise of the character felt inconsistent. Thus it became difficult to know whether to trust him (given his experience) or to fear for him (other than the obvious).
If he’s prepared enough to know how to repair the hull, to know how it’s done and have the necessary emergency materials on board, then why is he whipping out instructions ~ in the inflatable life raft, no less ~ on how to use a sextant? Or why is it whole days into his ordeal that he gets an idea as to how to procure some drinkable water, and then it hits him like a bolt of inspiration? It seems to me that anyone with enough expertise and confidence to attempt a solo voyage of such scale would think these contingencies through in advance, know every emergency technique, no?
Should we be impressed that this guy knows precisely how to scale his mast and repair his antenna, or should we be fearful at this daunting, unusual necessity and the possibility of his falling at any moment? Is he fragile, or is he Sylvester Stallone in "Cliffhanger"? It's hard to tell, and it vacillates. And either I don’t know enough about sailing and seamanship to know what I’m looking at, or I know too much for having spent “five years” with Graham, who knew his boat and the sea like Han Solo knew the Millennium Falcon and interstellar physics.
I just didn't buy some of the character’s responses to events, and in pursuing too diligently the exercise of one single character, period ~ no voice on a radio, no Wilson, no nuthin’ ~ writer/director J.C. Chandor provides insufficient background or external context to clue us in as to what Our Man is made of internally.
Factor in Redford’s customary understated and thoughtful delivery under virtually every condition, and we’re left too often with ambiguity (vs. paradox, which can be deeply nuanced and effective). Since we don’t really know our man, and little is being shared, inquiry becomes distraction.
I’m reminded of my warning for going into "The Tree of Life," even as I was requiring everyone to see it: This is a right-brain movie, likely to leave your left brain screaming for mercy.
Though here not screaming by any means, I advise the same: if you enjoy Redford, just see it and forget about logic. Chandor still does well, and you'll be well pleased.
Story: A man voyaging solo across the Indian Ocean awakens to find his sailboat crippled by a wayward shipping crate, and must find his way back into the shipping lanes without instrumentation amid a violent gale.
Genre: Drama, Action
Starring: Robert Redford
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Running time: 106 minutes
Houston release date: November 1, 2013
Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings
Screened Sep 18th at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX