November 14, 2013

A Man, a Boat, a Masterpiece

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Halfway through All Is Lost, it occurred to me just how many laws in the cinematic rulebook the movie had broken and gotten away with. It stars a character with no name or form of identification, whom we only know as an auburn-haired, American-accented sailor, and whom we better identify with as the legendary actor who plays him. It gives its character no backstory whatever and almost no words to express his feelings, save for a few SOS calls and one f-bomb. And to add to that, there’s only one character. This is the territory of Gravity, Life of Pi and Cast Away taken to its most extreme, a survival film where we are fitted with a single human face to latch onto. There is no other human being, tiger or volleyball for company. Robert Redford sails the ocean alone, and it’s totally up to him to make us believe in his odyssey.

Make us believe he does. Sandra Bullock was able to take us on an emotional roller coaster ride by hyperventilating and talking to herself. Redford is an actor of such effortless gravitas that even his simple physical motions and trite behavior is fascinating. The way the 77-year-old actor climbs the mast of his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, is a trip to watch. I would be hard-pressed to think of many other actors (perhaps Jack Nicholson,or Daniel Day-Lewis), who could make such mundane acts as applying glue to a hole in the stern, look interesting on screen.

That being said, All Is Lost does drag at times. There are moments when it feels like the buildup doesn’t justify the payoff, and at one hour and 40 minutes, the film could have done with a 10 minute trim. However, the film’s riveting third act is nothing short of astonishing — during the final moments, your jaw will drop. This is where we see Redford at his most intense, pushed to near-annihilation in a lifeboat while sharks swam around him and storms rage overhead. I found it hard to believe that I could continue watching this stranger whom I knew nothing about; no motivations, no history, no exposition or insight into his head. Redford’s role is 100% externalized, and he is able to convey everything about the essence of fighting for life out at sea in his mere facial expressions.

How is the plot? Basically, all that can be told is that the film puts us to work observing a man as he sets sail alone, for unknown reasons, from an unknown place. We know precious few things about him: that he is resourceful, that he is intelligent and that he is doggedly determined, to the point of being nearly stoic in the face of ferocious danger. He carries a map and a pen, which become his most important possessions later on, as he charts how far adrift his boat has gone.

Our man, who is also not given a name, is out on the Indian Ocean on his 40-footer when a floating cargo crate rips a hole in his boat and he has to set about repairing it. A storm then blows in, so he has to take refuge down in the cabin. Eventually the boat goes down and our man is reduced to crouching in an inflatable lifeboat, but his willpower never wavers. He baits a hook and waits for fish, sets off flares in the night to attract passing ships. At one point he comes up with an ingenious way to collect condensation and use it as his water supply, when he realizes his jerry can has sprung a leak. This is the portrait of a man who seems impenetrable, and it builds up to one heart-stopping scene at the movie’s close.

All Is Lost also constitutes a wild departure in style for director J.C. Chandor, whose terrific 2011 Wall Street thriller Margin Call was highly underrated. That film was almost the polar opposite to this one; a dialogue-driven, fast-paced expose that depended entirely on language and discourse, much of it cloaked in lies and deceit. It also featured a large ensemble cast of superstar actors, including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, and Demi Moore. In All Is Lost, Chandor seems committed to reinventing himself completely, by crafting a scant, slow-paced, meandering meditation on man’s willpower, in which he drops all recognizable elements from his first feature. That is, except the outstanding talent. That’s all contained in the work of the movie’s one and only performer.

After a career full of iconic roles, Robert Redford proves he still has an incredible amount of talent that has thus far gone unseen. He has suffered something of a slump in recent years, directing and starring in films like Lions for Lambs and The Company You Keep, but here he earns it all back in spades. This is the kind of work that would frighten a lesser actor. How does one hold the attention span of an audience throughout the entirety of a film, when everyone’s eyes have nothing to focus on but one craggy face? Redford manages it, with only a wizened and uncannily steady grace.