Donna W., Here….
A man awakens on his yacht to find that it has crashed against a wayward storage tank and is now taking on water via the gaping hole in the side of his boat. The man, whose name we never know, is concerned but calm. He goes about the business of repairing the hole, pumping out the water, and assessing what’s left of his equipment, provisions and supplies. He has no radio and no means of navigation. He is far, far from any shore. Problems begin to mount. A storm. An injury. Things go from bad to worse.
Without a whit of dialogue, we learn a lot about this man: he is an experienced yachtsman, he has probably lived through a mishap or two and learned from them, he is smart, he is prepared, he has done everything right in terms of outfitting his boat for safety. The jewelry he wears indicates that he is probably not a retired Wall Street banker or any other corporate type. Rather, he seems to be an outdoorsman. Whatever he did for a living must have been lucrative. In short, he has the bearing of a successful man who carved his own path in the world. (Yes, you really can surmise all of that without dialogue in a film of this caliber!) He’s a man successful in career and leisure certainly, but less so in family. He is alone, deep at sea.
The opening voice-over is a brief but powerful reading of a letter, delivered by Redford before his character appears onscreen. The voice is so familiar (especially for anyone who has an affinity for films of the 70s, Redford’s golden era) yet it is different these days, cracked with the strain of old age, and with an odd cadence that belies more emotion than the letter is meant to impart.
Redford was never a character actor, not a chameleon by any means. He made his career utilizing an easy charm, natural intelligence, and rugged all-Americanness. Here, all of those things are on full display. In a sense, his character is one big question mark. In another sense, he is familiar. Oftentimes star power can work against a good story, forcing the audience to spend 20 minutes trying to forget that they’re watching Tom Cruise (or whoever) before the character takes over, if it ever does. In this case, though, Redford’s classic Hollywood charisma works perfectly. He is at once an enigma and a familiar old friend. We know him. We’re on board, so to speak, from the start. No wonder the character is billed simply as “Our Man.”
As more hardships befall the man and his struggle for survival becomes more desperate, a stream of thought that began with admiring the character’s heroic will to survive led me to musings about mankind’s will to survive in general, which then brought me to thoughts of a family member who valiantly fought cancer for a year before eventually passing away. It was here that I realized the film is less a literal story of survival at sea and more a metaphor for man’s struggle with his own mortality. It isn’t that the film allowed my mind to wander, but rather that it invited and inspired these ruminations.
So it goes through the course of the film. The character Our Man is truly an Every Man.
If All is Lost sounds bleak, don’t let that keep you away. It is not a depressing film. It plays out as a thriller of sorts, highlighted by a breathtaking storm sequence and an eerily quiet moment on the sinking boat when every creak and groan of the hull could signal the moment when it finally pitches and goes under. I caught myself holding my breath multiple times throughout Our Man’s ordeal.
J.C. Chandor directs the film with such minimalism that it feels like an act of rebellion, almost an experimental film. With a budget of only $9 million (meager by Hollywood standards), he creates a compelling and memorable visceral experience that is simultaneously thought-provoking and heart-wrenching.
For example, the score by Alex Ebert (lead singer and songwriter for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) is so thankfully unobtrusive that it scarcely makes itself known at all until well into the film. As with the director, the composer has no fear of embracing silence. Here, there is no need for the ever-present low bass note that signals something bad about to happen or swelling strains of orchestral beauty to tell us when we should be inspired. Our involvement with the character is so deep that we make realizations with him and without forced prompting. When the score makes itself known, it beautifully complements the moment without attempting to oversell it.
Funny how minimalism can be so much more immersive than the noise that too often accompanies blockbuster junk. With less than a half page of lines spoken in the film, it still manages to say so much. It is a testament to visual storytelling and the power of films to lasso our empathy and drag us along, wherever the character may go.
It is a pleasure to see Redford doing such interesting work at the age of 77. While too many of his contemporaries have taken to films which parody their iconic roles and personas (and thereby pissing away their own legacies), Redford has wisely avoided that trap. After all, his legacy is Sundance. Say what you will about the bloated behemoth it has become, Sundance has changed lives, launched careers, and given us entire bodies of work from artists that might’ve languished in obscurity otherwise. Collectively, all film lovers owe Robert Redford a fat lot of gratitude.
Our Man is resourceful. His will to survive is moving. His fate is far more profound than the film’s end might lead you to believe at first blush. Ponder it on the ride home. Then ponder the rare beauty of a movie that leaves us with something more than distraction.
5 of 5 stars
– Donna White
Donna White is a writer and filmmaker who lives and works in Dallas, TX. She divides her time between making movies, watching movies, talking about movies, and writing about movies. Other than that, there is music, sweet music. This is her idea of balance.