All is Lost: A cinematic exploration of human dignity in a gargantuan, gorgeous and indifferent universe

All is lost“He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

It would be difficult for anybody who has read Hemingway’s novella to put it out of mind when watching J. C. Chandor’s latest film, All is Lost. They both quietly champion, without pretension, the lonely dignity of their respective protagonists. Each of these works is the tale of a human being, long past his prime, who has placed himself at the mercy of natural forces that most would not even contemplate enduring. And each is close to perfect.

The story is a simple one, largely unimpeded by the confines of any substantial narrative context. An old man (Robert Redford), sailing his boat, encounters a series of catastrophic conditions that push him closer and closer to the brink of annihilation. He is alone and virtually silent as nature calls upon him to demonstrate ever increasing levels of resilience. To give up is to die alone and be absorbed into the beautiful but terrible sea.

It was always going to take a rare and commanding presence for a performer to stand alone on the big screen for two hours without co-stars, and virtually without dialogue. And while Redford’s career is heavily decorated with a long list of plaudits (a few of them from yours truly), I can’t say I was entirely confident before this film began that he would pull it off. On some occasions in the past I’ve felt that Redford tends to push for a sense of naturalism or authenticity so hard as to generate the inverse – a sense of affectation. Perhaps some will agree (many more will disagree), but either way this is not the case here.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that this might be the pinnacle of Redford’s career as an actor. Paired down to the bare essentials, Redford effortlessly conveys the very real experience of solitary survival. This is not the kind of hysterically emotive performance that people ever put at the top of the list. Redford does not bother to scream, shout, issue ultimatums to Mother Nature, or engage in verbose and theatrical accessions with his maker. It is raw, human and real.

As for J. C. Chandor, he has approached the film with a light touch, opting for simple, frequently handheld camera work, functional editing and the occasional tight disorienting close-up that draws further empathy for the long-suffering protagonist. However, Chandor intermittently pulls back from the tight confines of this lost traveler’s subjective experience to reveal a gargantuan, gorgeous and entirely indifferent universe ready to swallow him up into anonymity.

This is cinema.

Another belated review from the Melbourne International Film Festival.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

13 thoughts on “All is Lost: A cinematic exploration of human dignity in a gargantuan, gorgeous and indifferent universe

  1. I really want to see this and I’m glad he made it. God knows what is out there on the ocean now — give the conditions of the gyres. I’d love to send you a copy of my novel Heart of Clouds which also has these themes. I’ve given it to one of the BEST screenwriters around in the hopes…..anyone who wants it can have a free copy – just come by and ask and I’ll email the mobi. The shipping container scene in the trailer above says it all.

  2. I enjoyed the film and thought it an epic performance by Redford. The openness of his performance was brilliant; he literally commanded the screen, all without dialogue! I agree with your thoughts about the cinematogography. The major criticism I – and the other guys watching it – had was the rather overdone symbolism of the ending, which was rather in contrast to the forensic approach of the rest of the film.

  3. Just watched Redford in A Bridge Too Far. An interesting film, pretty star-studded. Not sure what I thought of Redford in it yet. We will have to check this one out the next time the adults get a turn choosing the movie around here. Thanks for the tip!

  4. For me, Redford’s best performance by far was as the title character in ‘Jeremiah Johnson’. This is my favourite tale of the ‘Old West’ and also tells of a quiet, determined man living (mostly) alone, and surviving against all odds. If this new work is anywhere near as good, I am looking forward to seeing it. Thanks James, and regards from England. Pete.

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