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‘All Is Lost’ (2013)

by J.C. Chandor


I am always astounded by films that go great distances with scarce baggage, especially so when it works to the same extent as J.C. Chandor’s 2013 drama All Is Lost. It is a humbling story of man vs. the elements that mainly takes place in and around one small sailboat out on the Pacific, features almost no dialogue, and stars not one single actor besides leading-man Robert Redford. And with so little baggage, it manages to be one of the most arresting and devastating movies I have seen in years. “Sometimes less is more” I believe the experts say.

All Is Lost can be (and has been) described as “Life of Pi without the tiger”, giving it less to rely on in terms of drama but being superiorly impressive because of it. It is also less fantastical in its visuals and more grounded in reality, despite what goofs it has when it comes to sailing. I saw the film with my grandfather, a sailor and navy veteran who was always quick to point out clumsy mistakes Redford made as a seaman. It had a charm to it for sure.

The only major piece of dialogue in the film occurs in its opening, where an unnamed sailor (Redford) is heard reciting an apologetic message written for someone unidentified. As he sails across the sea in his yacht, his reactions to his increasingly difficult obstacles are mainly in his body language and expressions. It starts when a stray container pierces a hole in his hull and all sorts of cruel things continue to befall him afterwards, including a storm that destroys his communication equipment and ultimately sinks his ship.

A man with no name repairs his ship's mast in 'All Is Lost'.

A man with no name repairs his ship’s mast in ‘All Is Lost’.

Throughout it all, Reford conjures up solutions to his problem that may appear far-fetched but are entirely plausible, long as you have the right materials which it’s reasonable to assume a smart sailor does. His methods for survival eventually become desperate and his seemingly never-ending ordeal is thoroughly gripping to watch. The original music by Alexander Ebert only adds to the effect.

The closest thing we have to another character in the film is a distorted voice heard on Redford’s radio at one point (we never learn who it is and neither does he). Other than that, it’s all him, and although he barely says a thing, we understand perfectly.

You could definitely make the case that this is a more exciting version of Gus Van Sant‘s Gerry, which was also about being alone in a vast nothingness. The difference is that it starred two men, and also that their only objective was to get out of the New Mexico desert, with not a great deal happening besides “two guys walking”. It’s an interesting choice to make such a film, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the constant obstacles that Redford faces that makes All Is Lost far better. The relationship/conflict he has with nature itself gives us so much more than the non-existent chemistry between Matt Damon and Casey Affleck did in Gerry, which could be seen as a missed oppurtunity on Van Sant’s part.

I was in the middle of writing a huge school report when I first saw this film and I was staying with my grandparents while the rest of my family were on a ski trip. My plan was to put the DVD on for them and return to work. But as the film started, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I was enthralled by its drama, its cinematography, its score, and its incomparable leading performance (when the camera’s only on you, you have to do your absolute best and when that’s the case for an entire film, it certainly shows). Before I knew it, I had seen the whole thing.

The struggle that fuels All Is Lost is something everyone can relate to and perhaps that’s why it works so well. If it’s one thing in this world that does not discriminiate, it is the wrath of the Earth itself.

All is Lost