Wednesday, November 6, 2013

All Is Lost

Review by Pamela Zoslov

With ALL IS LOST, the young writer-director J.C. Chandor tries an experiment. He dispenses with the dramatic conventions of character and dialogue, presenting a nearly wordless film with a cast of one, Robert Redford. The 77-year-old actor plays an unnamed yachtsman (the credits list him as “Our Man”), adrift in the Indian Ocean after a collision in the Sumatra Straits with a wayward shipping container tears a hole in the hull of his boat. (The container is filled with sneakers from China – those cheap Chinese exports, always hazardous somehow.)

Experimentation can be a good thing, but there are certain things you can't omit and expect to connect with an audience. One of them is character. It's not enough to show the painstaking procedures a man follows to ensure his survival, though there is some technical interest, at least for a while, in Our Man's cool resourcefulness and nautical know-how. After an hour or so of watching his clever and increasingly panicked tinkerings, though, we start making out our grocery list, because Chandor's script not only provides no dialogue, but also withholds all background information about Our Man. Not only don't we know the fellow's name, but we have no idea why he undertook the dangerous solo trip, who his loved ones are, or why we should give a toss about him. On a basic human level, we root for his survival, as we would any man's, but really: wouldn't his struggle be more involving if we knew what was at stake? (I am wondering what the screenplay looks like on the page — no speech, and lots of stage business.)

The other thing that you should rarely omit is dialogue. Maybe Chandor feels like Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie star in SUNSET BOULEVARD, who lamented the advent of sound films. “We didn't need words. We had faces!” However, most silent movies didn't lack words, they lacked vocalized words. ALL IS LOST is virtually a one-man pantomime. The spoken dialogue is limited to the opening, which has Our Man narrating a farewell letter he has written to his loved ones. “I'm sorry. I tried. I fought till the end.” Well, there's a story to tell here, but Chandor, like Bartleby, prefers not to. We don't even get flashbacks to Our Man's preparations for his trip, with family members begging him not to go, saying it's too dangerous at his age. (Redford isn't your everyday septuagenarian; he looks fit, and his face, perhaps with the help of the surgeon's knife, handsomely weathered.) The absence of characterization compels you to make up your own back story – something, anything, to engage your interest in the nameless, un-storied hero. (At least the boy in LIFE OF PI, another castaway tale, had a story behind him.)

Our Man's adventure quickly becomes a nightmare as his radio equipment fails and his now-leaky yacht, the Virginia Jean, drifts into the path of a violent storm. Tempest-tossed, the nameless sailor does what he can to fight cruel nature, subsisting on his waterlogged rations of canned beans, using a sextant and a nautical map to try to navigate into a shipping lane and hail a passing cargo ship. Along the way, he also contends with a shiver of sharks, a gash on the forehead, and the sinking of his beloved boat. Things begin to look pretty hopeless for Our Man, and when he emits a loud, one-word curse, it's more than justified. If the movie were true to its narrative and its title, Our Man would assuredly die.

Without language and human interaction, much relies on the production values, which are quite good. Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini's cinematography is impeccable, highlighting the terrible beauty of the stormy sea and ominous skies. They do a considerable amount of underwater photography, offering unexpected perspectives, like Our Man's lifeboat as seen by passing schools of fish. Alex Ebert's score, with its plaintive five-note theme, is haunting.

Chandor, who previously wrote and directed the sub-Mamet Wall Street drama Margin Call, has a tendency to eschew character in favor of action, cinematography and star casting. His attempt to make a dialogue-free Everyman tale of Man against Nature is essentially a stunt. (How much of an “everyman,” by the way, is a wealthy WASP with a 39-foot yacht?) The idea might have been effective as a thirty-minute short, but it's a lot to ask of an audience to concern itself with the fate of a non-character for nearly two hours. And yet, come Academy Awards season, nominations and hosannas will undoubtedly abound. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.

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