Here's Joseph Conrad in London, circa 1880: "All the tempestuous passions of mankind's young days, the love of loot and the love of glory, the love of adventure and the love of danger, with the great love of the unknown and vast dreams of dominion and power, have passed like images reflected from a mirror, leaving no record upon the mysterious face of the sea. Impenetrable and heartless, the sea has given nothing of itself to the suitors for its precarious favors."
Here's Robert Redford adrift in the Indian Ocean, circa July 7, 2013: "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!"
Aside from an opening-scene voiceover, that expressive expletive is one of the very few things Redford says during All Is Lost, writer-director J.C. Chandor's grueling new maritime adventure. Chandor's film documents the efforts of "Our Man" (Redford) to survive at sea after his 40-foot sailboat crashes into a large floating shipping container. It's a surprisingly watchable, almost comically pure distillation of the conflict between man and nature.
Seriously, this is what the movie is about: Chandor puts an old man in the drink, sends a couple of storms his way, and watches what happens. Here's what we see: He sleeps in a hammock over his waterlogged living quarters. He patches the hole in his boat's hull. He downs a huge glass of whiskey once he finishes that job. He cooks dinner for himself. He tries to dry out his phone and radio. He prepares for a fierce tempest. He steers his ship amid sheets of rain. Over and over again, he replaces the wooden boards that protect him from the elements as he steps on deck and tries to steer his vessel.
For the first hour, all of this is mysterious and engrossing. Chandor uses lots of hand-held camera work and sticks to ground- and ocean-level shots that pay off spectacularly when he slips in a between-the-legs shot of the boat from the top of the mast.
But when Chandor tries to get all significant and meaningful, he starts to lose his way. Thanks to a handful of God's-eye point-of-view shots and a dollop of vaguely spiritual choral music, his straightforward survival tale threatens to become a religious allegory.
Yet, the religious angle doesn't quite fit. If anything, the film is more successful and instructive as an allegory about the survival instincts of the very wealthy. Consider the film's opening voiceover again, wherein Our Man is reading from a brief letter he's written and stuffed into a bottle after eight days at sea. Over the course of a single paragraph, this unbelievably fit, trim, and hyper-knowledgeable alpha male, who radiates money, privilege, and grace under pressure, confesses his failings and wrongdoings. He says "I'm sorry" three times. Sorry for what, exactly? It's not unreasonable to infer that something has put him out to sea. What, pray tell, is he hiding from?
Seen in this light, the question is not whether man is alone in the universe; it's whether Robert Redford is too big — of a movie star, that is — to fail.
All Is Lost
Opens Friday, November 15th
Studio on the Square