All is Lost

The economy with which J.C. Chandor constructs All is Lost is impressive. An opening monologue is really all we hear from Robert Redford’s wayward seafarer over the film’s 106 minutes, as he navigates an increasingly desperate sequence of events onboard a sailboat.

And that economy stretches beyond dialogue: we learn precious little about this man other than that he has a recreational familiarity with sailing. We don’t learn his name and, by journey’s end, we may not even be sure what happened to him.

I’m wont to be weary of such stoicism. So often, ambiguity disguises poorly realised storytelling; the answers aren’t given because they don’t exist. But this is smarter. The answers are irrelevant, and the themes are primal. All is Lost concerns that most basic of life’s drives: survival. Its execution turns the potentially mundane into the effortlessly gripping. We’ve seen this story before – one of the best films of the year, Gravity, is a version of it – but Chandor dares to construct it so far from convention, and, surprisingly, it resonates come closer to home in the process.

Your read on the film’s climax will be your own, and may or may not tell you something about yourself. You might see God’s hand in the challenges thrown down for Redford’s character, or you might see a man with a run of incredibly luck. Whichever way you choose to go, All is Lost will let you lead. Sheep may wish to look elsewhere.

In a film this ambiguously withholding it’s a surprise we’re given a movie star to follow. How much Robert Redford’s star lights our journey is unclear – perhaps the man we’re following isn’t such a stranger after all – but there’s a certain sense that his familiarity helps us root for him. In any case, he doesn’t let us in much. Chandor favours longer shots, observing as his character goes about the business of survival, rarely making much of his emotion, and rarely giving us a sense of how much trouble he believes himself to be in. These, again, are decisions for us to make.

Chandor’s debut was the Manhattan-locked financial talkie Margin Call, released a couple of years ago, which couldn’t be further removed from this sophomore effort. On the strength of All is Lost, I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

All Is Lost is in UK cinemas on December 26th.