Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: "All is Lost"

Director: J.C. Chandor
Runtime: 106 minutes

Almost all of Robert Redford's dialogue in All is Lost happens in voice over, during the first two minutes. As the camera pans across a cargo tank adrift at sea, we hear what are presumably his final words to those who knew him. Given the nature of the unnamed protagonist's circumstances, it's understandable that he would remain silent. Unfortunately, the film around Redford's stoic performance has even less to say than its lone character. Though effectively mounted and acted, All is Lost is ultimately too focused on the technical minutiae of survival to work as character study pitting man against nature.

As a simple tale of survival, All is Lost does still manage to get quite a bit right. Making a complete left turn from the talky financial drama Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor acquits himself quite nicely when it comes to staging bare bones story. Strip the middle section of Life of Pi of its computer generated fantasias and persistent voice over monologues, and that's essentially what All is Lost has to offer. Chandor also ups him game considerably during the film's first storm sequence, which involves an Inception-like scene of things going topsy turvy. 

Mr. Redford also makes a nice impression, though for large stretches that is probably due more to basic physicality than acting. The sense of tough, world-weary sufficiency is practically etched into the actor's face at this point in his life. Like Tommy Lee Jones, the increasingly prominent lines and cracks on his face seem to render him more effortlessly expressive and dignified with each passing year. 

And that's why it's such a shame that Chandor's script is such a wafer-thin piece of writing. Though the incidents that move the story, which takes place over a week,  prevent repetition, they are all that the film has. Like Redford's character, stranded out on the ocean, the script rarely attempts a dip beneath the surface. Compounding this problem is that there simply isn't enough of a surface to scratch in the first place.

Movies that rely on lone protagonists up against the elements are always fighting an uphill battle. There's a need to provide some level of backstory, especially when there's no establishing scenes a la Cast Away. And if a movie isn't going to look at where its stranded protagonists came from, then it needs to find ways of showing who that character is as they react to their situation in their methods, as well as their reactions of moments of success and failure. 

In All is Lost, we can see that Redford is a resourceful man, and clearly an accomplished solo sailor. He knows how to plan, and how to keep his cool when things go from bad to much much worse. Yet without any other forms of emotional release, big or small, Redford sometimes comes off as a bit of an automaton, albeit one in disguise as a 77 year old man. Even when yelling at a cargo ship as they cross his path, there's an emptiness and a lack of investment that works against the film, rather than in its favor. 

Rather than turn its simplicity into a virtue, All is Lost's script comes off more as a blueprint of a story than is still a long way from completion. A film like this should be a prime showcase for both a director and an actor. However, given the writing, Chandor undermines himself and his leading man. If anything, Chandor has more room to shine behind the camera than Redford ever does in front of it. As a result, All is Lost is a well-made, yet curiously underwhelming film that is sabotaged by its own attempts at narrative and emotional minimalism. It drifts on like the shipping container from the beginning, pulled by the waves, and never able to make any of its own. 

Grade: C+ 

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