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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: All is Lost

Years ago, director J.C. Chandor wrote a note. The note told the story of a man who, facing his own mortality, was trying to say goodbye. According to recent interviews with Chandor, this writing exercise was the catalyst for the larger story that would become All is Lost, a tale of a man (Robert Redford) whose boat becomes damaged in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford's character, referred to only as Our Man in the credits, struggles to save his ship, and later, to save his life, as nature and luck deal blow after blow against his campaign to survive.

It's important to know that All is Lost is, essentially, a silent movie. The only bit of dialogue occurs in the film's first five minutes, in the form of that same goodbye note that spawned the rest of the film. Because this dialogue says a lot about what this movie is (and isn't), I've included it here:

"I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you all would agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. All is lost here, except for soul and body. That is, what's left of them. It's inexcusable, really; I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that, I'm not sure. But it did. I know it now, and I'm sorry. I did not want to go. I still don't. I fought til the end. I'm not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. I'm sorry."

The words are well-crafted, but they lack context. The rest of the film is more of the same. A well-executed movie that could be called many things: minimal, meticulous, gritty, honest, elegant, and above all, real, All is Lost does almost everything right, but still lacks, for better words, a soul. The viewer will never get any context or background information about Our Man beyond the short paragraph written above, and is instead called on to insert him/herself into the experience of Our Man, much like a Rorschach test. And that somewhat clinical, sterile approach to character stops this movie short of greatness, letting it rest on top of the pile of "good, not great" movies I'll see without feeling cheated but stop thinking of days later.

That said, there are a lot of things All is Lost does right. The most notable is acting. It will be hard for audiences not to compare this movie to Gravity; both are cinematic experiences that place actors on proverbial islands, forcing them to perform a one-man show as they battle the elements. Sandra Bullock is no Robert Redford, though, and Redford pulls off what very few could, using the subtlest of gestures and facial expressions to make us feel we know exactly what Our Man is feeling every step of the way. Because there was less CGI involved, Redford's physical movements and struggles become a focal point of his performance and help to take the place of the words he's not using. I'll be completely shocked if Redford doesn't show up in this year's Oscar nominations.

All is Lost also sticks to its guns by staying grounded, thanks to directorial choices by Chandor. Our Man is stuck in an unusual situation, but it's not an impossible one, and is certainly much easier to imagine than being stranded in space. Chandor uses deliberate, slower shots that guide the viewer and understand the audience is intelligent enough to piece together what's happening, consistently showing instead of telling. It's safe to say that Chandor avoids the "sophomore slump" phase in this follow-up to his directorial debut, Margin Call. 

Gravity, however, is able to make up for what it lacks in the acting department by turning the movie into a full-out simulation, the closest I've ever come to experiencing a movie as a theme park ride. All is Lost isn't meant to be a visually stunning movie and isn't a big-budget film, but it is meant to be tense, even stressful. And it is, to a degree, but not nearly as much as it could have been. Ironically the biggest tension-killer in the movie is what inspired it all: the goodbye letter in the film's first few minutes. We already know at the beginning of the film that Redford's experience on a quiet yacht is eventually going to unravel and leave him stranded, at death's door, on a life boat more than a week later. And so every clap of thunder reminds us of the foregone conclusion before we can experience it ourselves. I spent the first 5 minutes of the film transfixed and the last 5 minutes in the same state (after Our Man pens that letter), but the rest morbidly waiting for the eventuality to unfold.

If you're a film buff, you'll want to see All is Lost for everything it achieves without the use of dialogue. But if you're looking for entertainment or are driven by character development, you may want to save it for a rainy day. Overall, I give it a B. 
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