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.