With the likes of Breaking Bad and The Wire commonly cited as television’s resurgence as an artform to rival cinema, many have rightly wondered where movies sit in today’s cultural landscape. Does the future lie solely in larger-than-life, 3D spectacles such as The Avengers rather than beautifully-made dramas like Taxi Driver? Is cinema in danger of being supplanted entirely as a relevant dramatic medium?
Far from it. In fact, All Is Lost could be seen as a timely manifesto for the things cinema can do that television often can’t. On paper, it’s a survival story about a man on a badly damaged boat miles from shore. But in practice, it’s a philosophical meditation on ageing and what it is that drives us to survive, no matter how rough the going becomes.
Robert Redford takes on an almost wordless role as an extraordinarily unlucky sailor. He awakes one morning to find that his yacht has been pierced by a cargo container, one corner of the metal monstrosity embedded in the fibreglass hull like an oblong wrecking ball.
Worse still, water has gushed in and shorted out all the power on the vessel, rendering any contact with the rest of the world impossible. Why is Redford’s character out in the Sumatran Straits all on his own? What’s his name, even? The movie doesn’t tell us. Instead, it takes place exclusively in the here and now, the camera following every detail of Redford’s desperate attempts to keep his vessel afloat.
We see the ingenious method he uses to dislodge the cargo container. We watch as he mixes up a water-proof resin to patch up the jagged wound on the hull. The detail in these moments is exquisite, the direction as keen-eyed and meticulous as Redford’s character. But watching what the protagonist does provides us with more than just a sense of his resourcefulness; it also establishes his affection for his vessel. It’s not only his home, it’s his life support. His best friend.
The boat becomes the film’s supporting character, a loyal, noble creature that ploughs on through the ocean spray. And if Redford and his boat are the heroes, the weather’s a particularly cruel antagonist. Stunning sound design captures the magnitude of these storms at sea; as Redford’s tossed around like a toy inside his boat, we become of how vast the squall is compared to him.
It’s an extraordinary physical performance from Redford, who’s hypnotic in a role that actors half his age would probably turn down flat. Without a script to fall back on, he’s left to communicate all his fear and determination with his noble, care-worn face, and his casting is a masterstroke. With an actor of Redford’s vintage at the helm, All Is Lost becomes more than just a man-versus-nature battle of wits: it becomes a meditation on how we find hope, no matter how dire the situation.
Bailing out water, making minute repairs, checking coordinates with a map and sextant – in these mundane yet vital means of surviving, Redford becomes a modern day Sisyphus, rolling his boulder uphill day after day, cursing the toll it takes on his body, but reaching inside himself for the resolve to carry on.
This isn’t to say that All Is Lost is a bleak or nihilistic film, despite the hopelessness its title implies. Just as Sisyphus found joy in his absurd struggle (at least according to Albert Camus’ The Myth Of Sisyphus), so director JC Chandor finds moments of beauty in almost every scene, from the startling blue of the water washing over Redford’s boat, to the shimmering light viewed from beneath the waves. One shot, of a shoal of fish swimming in a shape which echoes the hull silhouetted above the waterline, is staggeringly beautiful – and provides a subtle hint at events to come.
Ultimately, All Is Lost is about courage in adversity, but without the Oscar-bait mawkishness that description might imply. The film’s minimalism and lack of dialogue shouldn’t put trepidatious cinema-goers off, either; there’s a real eloquence to every aspect of All Is Lost’s production, from Alexander Ebert’s beautiful, murmuring score to Frank G DeMarco’s precise cinematography. This, surely, is pure cinema: no exposition, just a story told through movement and sound.
Above all, though, this is Redford’s movie. Throwing himself into a physically punishing role with evident passion, he holds the screen from beginning to end. And if Robert Redford chose never to make another film, then All Is Lost would make a truly stunning capstone to his career.
All Is Lost is out in UK cinemas on the 27th December, and is showing at the London Film Festival.
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