In the early 20th century, a literary movement known as Naturalism caught on as war suddenly began to grip America once again. Influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, Naturalistic writers wanted to emphasize the dark, harshness of life as well as man’s lack of control of the natural forces that truly guide his fate. All is Lost is as close to cinematic Naturalism as I’ve ever seen.
Robert Redford plays a character whose name is never revealed, a typical trait of Naturalism as these forms of expression look to stress nature’s indifference to man. This indifference is further exemplified with the film’s opening scene where the man (Redford) awakens from a nap below deck on his sailboat to find that a stray floating cargo container had somehow drifted into the side of his boat, puncturing it and resulting in the boat quickly taking on water. No explanation is given for this circumstance or than that it presumably fell off of a cargo ship and, as fate would have it, collided with the boat. The man is a pensive man; he does not react wildly or make rash decisions, rather he weighs his options and relies on his experience and skills. Redford’s is the only character in the entire film, and he is also a man of few words; accordingly, the script for All is Lost is only 32 pages long. Thus, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s film looks to explore modern Naturalism at sea as deliberately as possible.
All is Lost is a riveting achievement. As we watch this man struggle through a series of events set into motion by that seemingly innocuous cargo container, we are forced to mull over our own mortality and our own suitability to circumstance. Last year, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi beautifully captured some of what All is Lost attempted to capture, but that film was far more Romantic in its aspirations. All is Lost instead puts plot aside and seeks to pit man against nature in a rigorous, albeit somewhat predictable series of events. The result is a compelling yet extraordinarily minimalistic effort that does feel redundant at times.
Earlier this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also pitted man against incredible odds in a far more successful way. While both films depict man’s struggle with expertise, Cuarón, like Ang Lee before him, understood the need to make the film a visual spectacle as well. Thus, those films certainly utilize the media of film far more than All is Lost, while All is Lost relies more on Redford. Fortunately, Redford delivers. The sharp, witty con-man from The Sting is no more, but he has been replaced by a weathered and beaten sailor who may have the grit to do what Johnny Hooker never could – win an Oscar. B+
All is Lost is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes. It is a nailbiter and a triumph for Redford. The score by indi-rock name Alex Ebert is also characteristically right on.