The choice of writer-director JC Chandor to cast Robert Redford in All is Lost was astute, if not fortunate. By offering Redford the sole role in this survivalist-at-sea pic – essentially, a leaner Cast Away (2000; with no landing) for the 77-year-old performer, and a chance to prove he’s still strong onscreen – Chandor had a good pitch for a tough sell. With Redford’s matinee idol looks now hardened with age and emitting all the more confidence, his largely unspoken role (no “Wilson” the ball-buddy to coax along the scenes) is one who knew comfort and stability; voyaging alone by boat, in the opening minutes he’s set into desperation. With a camera fixed on him and no other performers in sight, Redford, as an unnamed character, doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation.
Then why the opening voiceover? Chandor begins with an obscured sight of what must be the wreck of the ship. At first looking like documentary-style footage, the shot then reveals clean lines of something akin to Stanley Kubrick’s monolith in extreme close-up. The sight itself, with its fine composition and movement through the frame, would be enough to tease us towards a mysterious, powerful experience. And yet, Redford reads over the image from a dour letter (which he’ll compose later) that has the sappy gall to include the film’s title – thankfully, the film ignores the device otherwise. The promotional materials state that the script was written thus (and we know nothing else of the character’s backstory), though the opening voiceover plays like other similar cases: bandage work during post-production. It’s an act of desperation – not only for Redford’s character, but the artist’s, in fear of failing to establishing tone. Such a mishap is unfortunate during the first ten minutes, when viewers decide if they’re in or out – especially in this otherwise confident film.
The film flashes back to Redford, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, woken by his boat hitting a shipping container of East Asian origin. Having torn his hull and flooding his cabin, the container shows mass consumerism reaching even a lone wanderer. When Redford inspects the container, it dominates the frame, similar to (again) Kubrick’s monolith – the sailor hasn’t discovered something greater than humanity, but what it has debased itself to: manufactured refuse that dominates the oceans. The obstruction, and the reality that his boat will sink, tower over Redford; humanity is dwarfed, as in Chandor’s previous film, the astounding debut Margin Call (2011) in which a tiered power structure of a Wall Street firm decides how to avert the effects of an inevitable global financial crisis and save their own necks. (The title “All is Lost” would have served that film just as well.)
Redford frees his ship from the container then decides to return to it, likely out of curiosity and greed. The hubris is fitting, as one of the traits of the wanderer, Odysseus. With Redford’s radio dead, he relies on a map and sextant, now back to the basics in true survivalist film spirit. (Since he will suffer, this film serves as another entry in the character disaster cycle I discuss in Film International 63-4.) Though remaining calm in pressured situations, other modern devices continue to fall short. When his radio appears to work, his repeated call of “This is the Virginia Jean with an S-O-S call, over” sounds like a loop recording of a dying mechanism (the conclusion of Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” collected in 1950’s The Martian Chronicles, comes to mind).
Redford takes to the top of his mast, as Odysseus would (though the moment feels more Icarusian). When a storm approaches, it looks like a massive raiding army, what Odysseus would have taken to be the wrath of Poseidon. Chandor’s traveler stands firm in the storm, though the next scene follows standard film grammar for the genre: increasing winds mean he will go under, before re-emerging and getting back to his cabin. Redford resorts to an inflatable life raft, which he casts overboard as a heavy sack that comes to life in spite of the swells. When he enters the raft and seals its top, it is now a dark cocoon, the crashing sea outside it echoing just as loud. The return to the primal is complete, now in darkness and robbed of senses aside from the womb-like sensations. Back to birth, in its imagery, the scene reminds us that should the storm keep surging, the lifeboat would turn into a waterlogged grave.
When the storm relents, a round school of fish, mirroring the raft, is like a shadow of life beneath an ebbing of it; the fish are also a portent for something deadly. The miraculous rescue of someone like Dieter Dengler, depicted in Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and his dramatized version, Rescue Dawn (2006), is less and less likely. Redford’s last hope is to light a fire signal (after his flares are used up), until the flames overtake his raft. When all hope seems gone, an underwater shot reveals a blissfully bleak ring of fire atop a firmament of water.
Redford plays a modern, pseudo-man of action who wears down during adversity. He is quite effective in the film’s slower moments, while thoroughly rattled when reacting to the elements (created on both open water and a simulation tank). During a recent interview with NPR, Redford noted how he was drawn to what he saw as a “pure cinematic experience,” while knowing the shoot would be brutal (it left him with permanent hearing damage). He said he would do it all again, regardless – what it takes for a one-of-a-kind performance.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012). He has chapters forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film (on service comedies), The New Western (on Alex Cox), and Film, Law, Crime (on the documentary).