The American writer-director J.C. Chandor is fascinated by crisis management. This keenest of interests was first revealed in last year’s classy Margin Call, which charted the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings at a Manhattan brokerage firm as news of its misdemeanours went public. Now Chandor pursues the theme into more abstract waters with All is Lost, a tautly sustained parable that invites reading as another take on our current economic turbulence, or a secular riposte to last year’s big Christmas hit Life of Pi, or simply as what it appears to be: the tale of an ordinary man enduring the worst week of his life.
The man remains nameless (the credits bill him as “Our Man”), but he’s immediately recognisable as Robert Redford, that totemic figure of white liberal America. When we first see him, he’s snoozing below decks on a yacht bobbing comfortably along in isolation on the waters of the Sumatran straits – until it’s struck by an errant cargo container, possibly of Asian origin, holding a payload of cheap trainers. Assess the situation as you will.
The collision breaches the hull, causing the boat to take on water at an alarming rate – and thereafter Chandor displays a commendable faith in the notion that watching this man making repairs to his stricken vessel (tinkering with a fritzing radio, pumping out the water pooling below deck) will be enough to stick us to our seats.
The recent Gravity was acclaimed for its pared-down approach, but that far flashier experience sought to impress and immerse the viewer from its very first rotations. All is Lost, workmanlike in the best sense, builds gradually, with not much more at its disposal than Redford and the elements. Yet the two films’ effects aren’t dissimilar. Steve Boeddeker’s sound design allows us to hear and feel a storm blowing in from some distance; when it hits, we’re left in no doubt as to what it is to be struck by a wave, and left clinging on for dear life.
For, yes, this is another of those late 2013 endurance tests that have forced famous faces – like the rest of us – to work that much harder for their money. After several years in which Redford looked to be coasting, both before and behind the camera, it’s stirring to see him properly exercised – in part because there’s so little else occupying the frame. The actor still has the intelligence to persuade us he’d be able to improvise some way out of his troubles, but also to suggest that this generally capable man is equally smart enough to realise he’s in serious trouble, and that he might not have the resources to stem the tide.
You could say this mainstream minimalism is nothing more than a reaction to the bloated spectacles prevalent elsewhere these days, and that it’s not without its own problems. Just as some viewed Gravity as no more than a series of beautifully orchestrated close shaves, there will surely be those who cavil at All is Lost’s jettisoning of context and exposition.
But then again: Chandor’s ruthless approach fixes Gravity’s issues with consoling spectres and backstory; Redford’s mid-film F-bomb arguably conveys everything we need to know about the sailor’s mindset; and maybe, just maybe, context and exposition are among the first luxuries washed away in a scenario like this – that it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re coming from, when you’re facing the deluge in a boat tossed and turned such that the floor is now the ceiling. All is Lost inhabits the moment – our moment – and does so in ways very few films released this year have.
(MovieMail, December 2013)
All is Lost screens on Channel 4 tonight at midnight.