True solitude is a rarity at the movies, for those of us in the audience contending with yakkers and texters, and for the people on screen as well. The lonesome strangers of the old Westerns almost always had a town to ride into or out of, a buzz of social life to contrast with their individualistic ways. Even movies that emphasize the isolation of their main characters tend to provide them with companions, human or otherwise. Piscine Patel in “Life of Pi” had his tiger, Richard Parker; Chuck Noland in “Cast Away” had Wilson the volleyball. Those guys did a lot of talking, even when nobody else was around.
The guy in J.C. Chandor’s amazing “All Is Lost” – identified only as “Our Man” in the credits and instantly recognizable as Robert Redford, giving the performance of his life –says almost nothing at all. For the duration of the film, he is the only person in sight. In the opening scene, we hear his voice as he composes a letter of apology and farewell, presumably to unspecified loved ones back home. Later – or rather earlier, since most of the story flashes back from that moment of fatalism, eight days into his ordeal – he tries to send a distress call over the radio and tosses a few epithets at his fate. Otherwise, he is silent. And although this man’s radical aloneness is terrifying, to him and to us, it is also a condition he has chosen, one we might even envy, just as his taciturn competence is something we are inclined to admire.
He finds himself in the Indian Ocean, in the empty waters between Indonesia and Madagascar, on a solo sailing voyage. We infer that he is someone who can afford a comfortable, well-appointed yacht and the leisure to pilot it in exotic places, something he also clearly has the skill to do. He’s rich, American and handsome. (He’s Robert Redford.)
What else do we know about Our Man? He wears a wedding ring and an air of poised, understated confidence. In the midst of a desperate crisis, he takes the time to shave, and we might wonder whether this act of grooming under duress is evidence of self-discipline or vanity. Even when he is absorbed in practical matters that have life-or-death consequences, our ancient mariner maintains a sense of style; there is a subtle self-consciousness in his efforts to embody the old Hemingway-esque ideal of grace under pressure. He is a model of masculine virtue, and he knows it. (He’s Robert Redford.)
The ancient Greeks believed that character should be revealed through action. I can’t think of another film that has upheld this notion so thoroughly and thrillingly. There is certainly no other actor who can command our attention – our empathy, our loyalty, our love – with such efficiency. Redford has always been a magnificent underplayer, a master of small, clear gestures and soft-spoken intensity. This role brings him to the pinnacle of reticence but also allows him to open up in startling ways. Behind the leathery, pragmatic exterior is a reservoir of inexpressible emotion. An opera thunders in the silence.
“All Is Lost,” an action movie in the most profound and exalted sense of the term, has a simple plot that I hesitate to summarize, less for fear of spoiling anything than because a précis would either miss the point or recapitulate the whole film. A lot goes wrong. An errant shipping container punches a hole in the hull. The cabin floods, and the onboard electrical system is ruined. A ferocious storm spins, tosses and smashes the boat. Attempts to communicate are foiled by rotten luck and the metaphysical indifference of the universe.
Through it all, the man perseveres, in his patient, problem-solving way. He patches his beloved boat’s wound with epoxy and cloth, hauls out the storm jib, gathers provisions for the lifeboat and digs up a never-used, old-fashioned mariner’s sextant. Using this, a sheaf of maps and a copy of “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” he sets a course for commercial shipping lanes, hoping for rescue from the big boats that were, indirectly but with unmistakable metaphorical significance, the cause of his predicament.
Like other tales of survival at sea – a robust literary tradition that includes classic books by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville – “All Is Lost” manifests a strong allegorical undercurrent. Nothing registers the fragility and contingency of the human presence in the universe quite as starkly as the sight of a small vessel adrift on an endless ocean, and few representations of heroism are as vivid as the spectacle of an individual fighting to master the caprices of wind and water.
But this is not – or not only – a parable of Man against Nature, ready-made for high school term paper analysis. The physical details that carry the story and make it suspenseful and absorbing are also vessels of specific meaning, and together they add up to a fable about the soul of man under global capitalism. Our man is a privileged consumer (just look at all the stuff he has on that boat) whose fate is set in motion by a box full of goods (children’s sneakers, as it happens) accidentally knocked out of circulation.
It is this catastrophe and the man’s desperate efforts to correct it that link “All Is Lost” with “Margin Call,” Chandor’s excellent first feature. That movie, about an office full of panicky investment bankers dealing with the unfolding financial crisis of 2008, is in many ways the opposite of “All Is Lost.” It takes place almost entirely indoors, and it’s pretty much all talk. But it is also very much concerned with how powerful men react when their sense of control is challenged, and with the vast, invisible system that sustains their illusions.
Our Man is a more complicated hero than he seems, and shades of ambiguity and implication filter in through the sharply defined, crisply composed images of his struggle. I’m reminded again of Conrad, and not only because “All Is Lost” is an appealing and exciting maritime adventure with one eye on the geopolitical state of the world.
Conrad once famously identified his goal as a writer as “to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.”
A good filmmaker will not take that for granted, even with the advantage of a visual medium, and Chandor more than fulfills Conrad’s criterion of artistic achievement: “If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”