All is Lost is a film that played here in town last year, for quite a while, but for various reasons I didn’t get around to seeing it. The premise, a man alone on a yacht, seemed forbidding, but luckily in this age of the DVD I can correct my mistakes fairly quickly, and I am happy that I finally got to see and appreciate what I had missed.
Robert Redford is the unnamed protagonist of the story, an able seaman in a well-appointed yacht somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. One morning he is awakened in his cabin by an alarmingly large flood of water coming in. The boat has banged into a huge shipping crate, which has evidently fallen off and drifted away from some cargo ship, cracking a big hole in the side of the yacht. The crate is Chinese, and at one point we notice that a whole bunch of sneakers have spilled out of it, which may or may not be a sly commentary on globalization. In any case, we follow our man as he puts in a great deal of effort patching the hole, pumping the water out, and trying to get his boat back in shape. But a wicked typhoon is coming, and the flooding has ruined his radio.
J.C. Chandor, who had a minor hit with his dark Wall Street satire Margin Call a few years ago, is the writer and director of this taut little drama. Unlike most survival films, we don’t get flashbacks, or any backstory at all for that matter, nor are there any other characters—and except for a minute or two, Redford doesn’t do any talking. It’s just one man against the elements. The whole process is laid out for us with precision, every step of the way presented with almost a sense of inevitability, and it’s wonderful how the simplicity of watching a man struggle to survive for two hours has been turned into the most meaningful sort of suspense. The 76-year old Redford is amazing in a role that requires a great deal of vigorous effort—the film looks like it was exhausting to shoot, and you can see the man become more thirsty, sunburned and just worn down as time goes on.
All is Lost, as the title makes you aware, confines the drama to the most basic elements—a human being struggling to live while being confronted, inexorably, with imminent death. Rarely in a film is so much depth of meaning evoked by so few means. All is Lost is available on DVD.