There’s really not much to All Is Lost, director J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Margin Call. Robert Redford stars as a sailor on a solo cruise through the Indian Ocean whose sailboat hits a free-floating storage container and starts taking on water. For the next 106 minutes we watch as Redford does whatever he can to keep himself afloat and alive as every scrap of equipment he possesses slowly fails him. It’s like an ocean-bound version of Gravity, if Gravity had been made by a director out to deny the audience a good time.
As such, All Is Lost is a grueling experience. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to sit there, mind racing, as you attempt to get ahead of the narrative. How is Redford going to get out of this? Better yet, how is Chandor, who paints himself into a corner and then just keeps on adding brushstrokes? The movie is one of the best I’ve seen this year at placing the audience inside the dilemma of the main character. And it hits almost all the right notes … almost.
I wish I could tell you that Redford and Chandor find their way to a satisfying conclusion, but that’s not the case. Without giving anything away, the last 30 seconds — while sure to spur epic debates between viewers — are basically a big cop-out. The last shot can be read in at least two different ways, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what actually happened. It’s a technique that sometimes works (think that last, indecipherable exchange between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation), but for this movie it feels like a give-up.
Here’s the thing: The most admirable aspect of All Is Lost is the way it stays rooted in reality. This isn’t Life of Pi, with a sea-bound tiger and a bunch of bullshit religious tripe thrown over the narrative. Every frame of All Is Lost strives for stark realism. (So much so that a cold and waterlogged Redford reportedly said the shoot "beat the hell out of me.") But then the movie pitches all that verisimilitude right when it matters most. Some will admire the way All Is Lost concludes; I thought it the easy way out for a filmmaker who suddenly lacked the courage of his convictions.
Despite the ending, I still think All Is Lost is in many ways a triumph. Start with the 77-year-old Redford, who delivers a terrific performance. It’s easy to forget how much of the craft of acting is the reaction to other characters or lines of dialogue — both of which All Is Lost lacks. (There are very few scripted lines in the film, and Redford is the only human being we see throughout.) Instead, Redford must carry the movie with his actions, and he does a miraculous job of conveying his thoughts and strategies through facial expressions, body posture and good, old-fashioned movement. It’s a master class and a crowning achievement for an actor who’s done some of Hollywood’s most iconic work of the last 60 years.
The film is also a technical triumph. Chandor’s direction is first-rate, both in what he chooses to show the audience and what he doesn’t. The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini is impeccable. The editing by Pete Beaudreau is on point, and gives the movie a solid flow. In many ways, All Is Lost is a movie they should show in film schools to aspiring writers and directors. It’s an experiment in film-making, a balancing act that succeeds because of the talent and vision of those who made it. I just wish Chandor would have stuck the landing.