J.C. Chandor, nominated for an Oscar for writing Margin Call, chose a curious follow-up. In All is Lost, Chandor serves as writer/director and takes acting legend Robert Redford, strands him in the middle of the ocean, and watches him flounder. Considering Margin Call was heavily dialogue-driven, it’s an interesting detour to a nearly wordless film. Redford plays an older sea-faring gentleman who discovers one morning that his boat has been damaged by a floating shipping container. He has to repair the hole and take inventory of his remaining supplies. As his boat takes on more water, being battered by storms, Redford must strive to reach a shipping lane as his best bet to be rescued.
Allow me to furor my brow at the reception All is Lost has gotten thus far. It’s not a bad movie but when you boil it down it’s a rendition of The Old Man and the Sea minus, you know, the giant fish. I knew going in that the film was going to be minimalist, but I didn’t think it would be this dull. It is literally a guy manning a boat for 90 minutes, patching things up, with the situation getting worse. Then he’s in a raft. Then he’s low on supplies. Then, well, it ends pretty much how you’d expect though with a flicker of ambiguity for the squeamish. The drama of human survival, of man against nature, can be plenty invigorating, but instead Chandor takes a more leisurely and studiously pessimistic approach, and so we watch Redford slowly fail. The filmmaking can barely keep your interest. He hoists the sale. He tends a hole in his boat. He salvages electronics. There are a couple of choppy storms that throw the ship around, but The Perfect Storm this isn’t. Nor is it Open Water. There is a certain brainy enjoyment from survival thrillers, thinking alongside the characters, but our opportunities are absent here unless you know a thing or two about sailing, otherwise I just kept thinking, “fix the hole in your boat.” It takes a good while, until the third act when Redford is forced to abandon his sinking vessel, before the perilous reality seems to settle in. Beforehand it feels like the film is dawdling, and I just found myself shrugging and growing restless. It feels callow of me to complain that not enough happens onscreen when I’m watching a man struggle to survive at sea, but that’s because the sense of urgency is nil. I watched Redford eat beans out of a can more than I saw him sweat over his predicament. I wish Redford had been paired with a tiger or a volleyball for decent screen company.
This is very much a one-man show with Redford ably holding the screen, but will you care about his character and his plight? The character is nonexistent, far more so than the similar charge against the other awards-friendly survival thriller, Gravity. I always felt like I was observing Redford from a distance, never fully emotionally engaged, and more so just studying his survival skills like there might be a test later. That’s because Redford serves as a metaphorical stand-in for all of humanity (the character’s listed name is “Our Man”); the movie feels replete with allegory, which makes the tedium all the more unbearable for me. I didn’t feel the man’s horror or nerves or despair or urgency. I didn’t feel much of anything. That’s because I believe that Redford’s acting history is meant to fill in for the absence of character. We’re not watching any man brave the dangers of the ocean, we’re watching the aging Hollywood screen idol dig into his own screen history and showcase what remains. It’s a fine performance that kept me watching but it felt too modulated, too controlled, too internalized to translate the myriad of emotions necessary. It’s 90 minutes of Redford standing in for himself standing in for humanity, named “Our Guy,” remember. That already sounds laborious.
Chandor received notoriety for his smart, hard-hitting Mamet-esque dialogue, and deft handling of actors, but All is Lost showcases a whole other set of skills in his storyteller toolbox. Being nearly wordless, the movie is one giant exercise in visual storytelling. Chandor’s camera angles, editing, and in particular the use of sound and lighting, keep the audience oriented smoothly. While it may take a moment to gauge what Redford is doing, there is a logical connection to his actions. There’s a visual mastery here that was not even hinted at with Margin Call, which was mostly a stage play of boardroom conversations put on film. The special effects are seamlessly integrated into the film and having Redford perform many of his own stunts adds to the overall verisimilitude, the film’s calling card. I feel like Chandor the director outdid Chandor the writer.
All is Lost is a film I can better respect than support, an intellectual exercise in a deteriorating and seemingly doomed survival scenario, the anti-Cast Away. It’s probably as realistic as these things get, but does that make it interesting? The details of reality are there but the story and especially the character work is lagging. It’s nice to see Redford with such a meaty part, and obviously one he is connecting with, but I wish his talents were put to greater non-metaphorical purposes. With the plot and characterization stripped, it appears that Chandor’s film is rife for allegorical analysis, noting the struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, the futility of existence, etc. To me, that sounds like you’re doing the movie’s work for it. The overall lack of urgency just wrings out what entertainment there could have been with this tale of survival. When your main character doesn’t recognize the threat, then that transfers to the audience, and we too shrug. All is Lost is certainly well made from a technical standpoint, with Chandor showing impressive visual storytelling prowess, but it drags and offers little incentive to connect. What ends up being lost is your patience and attention.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.
Nate’s Grade: B+