"...it plays like a visual poem due to the lack of dialog and the emphasis on music."
All is Lost is a fascinating meditation on survival and calamity, making this one of the sadder films I've seen this year. However, All is Lost is also one of the coldest movie experiences I've had this year, as it skates by in one-hundred and six long minutes with maybe eight lines of dialog, miraculous use of the ocean, a soft but careful performance by Robert Redford, and a riveting situation at hand. If anything, it's another film that proves how much you can do with so little and that a confidence-boost for Redford and the masses that the man can still do things people half his age struggle to do.
Robert Redford plays a presumably experienced seafarer (billed as "Our Man" in the credits), who finds himself in dire circumstances when a large shipping crate collides with his boat and leaves a gaping hole in the side of his boat. The hole is big enough to allow massive amounts of water to drench what looks to be a pretty well-furnished home, complete with books, a large bed, a sofa, and an assortment of food. He patches it with paint and excess materials, but quickly spots a large, destructive storm in the distance. The remainder of the film plays like someone is making life and survival an endurance test for "Our Man," and shows his methods of survival when all seems to be entirely lost.
Credit has to go to Redford, who, to my understanding, did all his own water stunts in addition to carrying the entire film on acting minimalism. Few words are spoken in All is Lost, and Redford uses the silence to showcase his actions and his response to the situation. This is the beauty of the film, as it plays like a visual poem due to the lack of dialog and the emphasis on music. Alex Ebert's score makes up for the lack of dialog, utilizing everything in a subtle way, not relying on dramatic bangs and booms in the synthesizers to create for a pleasant mood or tonality to the picture.
The film's greatest strength (and ultimate problem) is in its lack of dialog. Due to the minimal dialog and lack of conversation since Redford remains the only actor in the film, the film is inherently heavy on self-contemplation and viewer-thought. We are constantly thinking about what will happen next, what outcome will some situations have, and how "Our Man" will respond to the troubles that face him. This works because director J.C. Chandor gives the audience the impressionistic benefit of the film being exactly what we want it to be.
On an opposite note, that offers for little character development, which will be one of the reasons All is Lost will alienate itself from universal praise and possible awards. However, Chandor's response to such criticism could be that we shouldn't really need a reason to sympathize with Redford's nameless character other than he is human and he is in trouble and that sympathy for somebody with those two characteristics is simply our nature. He has a point; everything else after those two things is pretty trivial in the broader picture. However, in the grand scheme, I blame this for an emotional resonance weaker than the one I had in Life of Pi, a film undoubtedly more emotional.
All is Lost is a strong film in terms of mood and score. I have no idea what audiences will think of it. Some will hail it for similar reasons, and others will loathe it for not getting more to the bottom of things and leaving each scene with some element of ambiguity. I could feel some anger as I exited the theater after being met with the predictably vague ending. I walked out totally satisfied because (a) its ending was on-par with one that would make me happy and (b) because the film stayed true to its roots and Chandor, as a writer and director, never compromised his vision.
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic
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