Technically fall doesn’t start until December 21, so it’s still fall, and I can write a fourth edition of the Fall Movie Bonanza series of blog posts, right? Right.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost stars the weathered and rugged, crinkled but well muscled 77-year-old Robert Redford as “Our Man,” a seasoned sailor who becomes lost at sea after a stray shipping container punctures his craft, and a storm has its way with the man and his ship. Having read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea recently (as mentioned in a previous post), it was an interesting coincidence to be able to compare and contrast two fictional nautical tragedies.
There was almost no dialogue in the movie, and I found it amazing that the lonely protagonist (the only character we see in the whole movie) didn’t curse aloud more often, considering how quickly his situation deteriorates and how each problem seemingly solved becomes undone by a new problem. I know for myself that I would be cursing constantly, but then again I’m not a sailor and would never go out deep into the Indian Ocean on a pretty little sailboat capable of being tousled by storms. Redford’s gave an impressive performance, earning our respect with his methodical determination in trouble-shooting each problem as it came along. He was so confident and handy that if the movie didn’t start how it did, with a monologue about how his situation had become so desperate that “all is lost,” I would have had hope that he would be able to make his way to land. There was real satisfaction in watching him at work, pulling ropes, scooting up the mast, and maneuvering at the ship’s wheel.
As enjoyable as the movie was, I was surprised to read that All is Lost garnered a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it makes me wonder if the very high rating has more to do with Redford’s reputation and influence among American film critics and filmmakers, paired with the ambition of a movie that limits itself to showing us only one actor, than with the actual quality of the picture. Also the fact that he’s getting up there in years, and who’s to say this isn’t his last noteworthy movie with him as the star.
There are many times the audience is left to wonder what exactly is in the man’s head. I’m sure it was intentional, but the vast majority of us who know nothing about seafaring were often left wondering exactly what he was trying to do at various points in the movie. Why does he take it upon himself to risk his life attempting to raise the sail during a horrendous rainstorm? Why does he toss potentially useful materials out of his life raft? Such questions can distract and disorient viewers trying to sympathize with the onscreen hero.
Contrast All is Lost with The Old Man and the Sea, and there are a multitude of differences between the makers’ techniques. In The Old Man, Hemingway has the old man out at sea talk to himself so that we know what he’s thinking, in addition to giving us his thoughts so that we understand the various sea-maneuvers that he does. Hemingway is notorious for his “iceberg” theory of writing, where the little bit of detail jutting above water is suggestive of a much larger mass of ideas and emotions. With this Redford movie, though, the “iceberg” is almost totally submerged.
In the Hemingway novel, we know exactly why the man is so far out from land: he is an unlucky fisherman unwilling to give up on catching the largest marlin he has ever seen as a matter of necessity (he is dirt poor and fishes for a living) and pride (his fellow villagers shake their heads at the mention of his name because he is so unlucky as to not catch any fish for months). With All is Lost, we really have no idea as to what’s going on, and no hints are really given as to his origins and motivation for sailing out so far from home well past his prime in a small boat.
I feel conflicted about it because cinema is a admittedly a different narrative medium from the novel, and so it’s not unusual that a movie would give us a more external, objective perspective than the interior perspective you expect when you read a book. And it is ambitious of Chandor to risk alienating viewers by keeping Redford’s character so mysterious. I admire his ambition, but I can’t help but wonder if the movie would have been stronger if the script gave the audience just a little bit more information so that our guesses as to the man’s motivations were pure speculation.
On the other hand, it was fun to make up Redford’s back stories at a bar with friends after the movie. Each of us took turns making up his story, and any movie that compels its viewers to discuss it for hours afterward is valuable. Too often movies end, the credits roll, and as soon as you walk out of the theater and head home, you’re already done thinking about them.