Filmmaking is a bit of mystery. There is no map to success and it is difficult to predict how well a project will make the transition from paper to screen. Sometimes it is better to follow the rules, other times they need to be bent or broken. All is Lost, a film with one actor, no backstory, and practically no dialogue lacks many of the traditional tools relied upon to tell a story, yet manages to wordlessly capture something incredible.
The opening minutes see Robert Redford’s unnamed character alone aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean as it collides with a stray shipping container. The crash destroys his radio and navigational tools, leaving him adrift and struggling to survive. As viewers, we essentially know nothing about Redford’s character other than what we see. A ring on his left hand suggests he may be married. A fleeting opening voiceover hints that he might have a family. But nothing is fact, everything is there to be interpreted by the audience – this is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule followed literally and taken to new heights.
In other circumstances, such levels of anonymity and ambiguity in the main character can be a fatal weakness. Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor suffered massively because it attempted to construct a story around an unnamed protagonist hovering without reason in the outskirts of a very vague drug deal. But despite the lack of information we have on Redford’s character, All is Lost works because we understand that his clear and simple goal is to survive.
Writer and Director J.C. Chandor may still be a relative newcomer, but he is clearly unafraid to break new ground (this second feature film is a world apart from his 2011 debut Margin Call which was a densely wordy Wall Street drama).Both thematically, and in its stripped down story, there’s an obvious comparison to Gravity, but there’s a distinct move away from the tension and frantic pace of Cuarón’s film. Redford’s character weathers many storms that will have you on the edge of your seat, but it is the long, reflective interludes of sea, sky, and stillness that give All is Lost such a unique and mesmerising flavour. Redford’s performance is all the more remarkable for the lack of dialogue. We witness a transition from cool-headed competence to doubt and desperation through movement, action, and reaction. There are many overt ways that the story progresses – violent storms must be dealt with, a distant shipping lane provides hope – but the story really unfolds in the small and subtle details that are left to the audience to notice.
All is Lost can ultimately be read as a meditation on life and death, and in particular of the will of the individual to survive despite insurmountable odds. It is an exquisitely shot, wonderfully scored film that does something different. It grants the audience the opportunity to actively engage with the story, to interpret and seek meaning rather than to sit back and passively ingest a narrative. On paper, the concept was dubious, but in its finished form All is Lost is something very special. While the film understandably won’t be for everyone, those who dare to venture into uncharted waters have the chance of finding a very rare treasure.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 16th Jan 2014.