Wednesday, October 19, 2016

All is Lost

The main and only character in All Is Lost (2013, dir. J. C. Chandor) doesn't have a name. The credits refer to him as "our man." He's played by Robert Redford. He is probably around 70 years old. He seems to be in good health, but he moves carefully and, sometimes, painfully, perhaps a reflection of his age and the aches and pains that come with it. We don't know why he's in the middle of the Indian Ocean, sailing alone, but we can guess that it's an adventure which he wanted as an old man to undertake. Maybe as a way of proving himself or simply as a kind of last defense against encroaching age and weakness. One problem with Redford's portrayal of this character is that his movements seem carefully calculated, deliberately slow. It makes me suspect that Redford himself moves more easily than the man in the film does. But that's not a major objection.

The plot of All is Lost follows the struggles of the man to survive after his sailboat is disabled in the middle of the Indian Ocean. While he is sleeping, the boat collides with a container that has apparently fallen from a transport vessel, and the container leaves a hole in the side of the boat. The water that leaks in ruins most of his electronic high-tech equipment. Although he man tries to make repairs, he manages to get the radio to work for only a few moments and even though he sends out an SOS no one seems to hear it. He’s left isolated. He patches the boat, but more damage occurs during a big storm, and in a second storm the boat turns completely over, and the mast that holds the sails snaps. Before the boat sinks, Redford’s character retrieves some food and other items and retreats to a raft.

One theme of All is Lost is technology. The sailboat is well equipped with high tech instruments, but seawater leaves them useless. The man has to read a book on navigation by the stars and learn how to use a sextant by which he tracks his slow drifting movement west through the Indian Ocean towards shipping lanes, where he hopes he’ll be rescued. Several ships pass but they don't see or hear him. Throughout the film, technology proves useless.

There‘s a basic existential theme here of a man totally isolated from the world, denied the use of the technology he would normally rely on for navigation and electricity, forced to fall back on his own resolve and physical resources. He could, at any time, give up. But until the end he presses on. With each disaster, he moves methodically and logically to overcome his situation and survive. Gradually, though, his options diminish and the odds against him increase. He knows this, but he still doesn't surrender. Existentially, he's asserting himself against the world, against the void of the world, against the likelihood of his own death. He chooses to survive and to go on, to resist what seems to be inevitable, but nature and chance don't cooperate. At times he moves with the stolid indifference of some barnyard animal—instinctively looking for solutions in the face of hopelessness.  He shows emotion, depression and grief, on a few occasions, but he never seems especially lonely.  It’s clear in the last few scenes that he’s aware of his impending fate.

The man’s situation against diminishing odds and the hostility of the natural world that doesn't really care whether he survives is analogous to the situation faced by those of us approaching old age. We can try to eat well, see our doctors, go to the gym and exercise, but in the end biology takes its toll and hurls us to our fate whether we like it or not. One’s personality, individual circumstances, efforts to resist, acts of virtue or perfidy, don’t matter.

The title--All Is Lost--suggests despair and hopelessness. That is the mood and the tone that carries us throughout the film, to the very end, but in the last 30 seconds the film hedges its bets, and compromises.

There’s virtually no dialogue. Redford’s character speaks a few words into his radio trying to send an SOS signal, and at the beginning of the film we hear him read a message to his family as what he believes will be the end approaches. Other than that, the man simply moves around, trying to keep the boat afloat, trying to make repairs, trying to catch food and collect drinkable water. It's really quite an achievement--Redford’s acting in this film. But I do have to say that the film lacks a certain dramatic interest. The events we see are the events that a man in the situation of Redford's character would probably face. They’re predictable. There are no surprises. There are accidents and mishaps, which the man recovers from, but for the most part everything happens as we would expect. The only uncertainty has to do with the ultimate fate of the character. I remember after the film had been underway for 45 minutes, with still an hour to go, thinking to myself, “he's abandoning the boat and there’s still an hour to go?” The film doesn't offer a lot of conventional payback for the viewer who sits all the way through. That's not a criticism. For the most part the film is true to the plot line and the situation it develops. it doesn't create artificial and contrived dramatic situations. Rather it simply presents events as one would expect them to happen.

All is Lost reminded me of Robert Stone’s novel Outerbridge Reach, which portrays a lone sailor in a similar situation.

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