In 2011 J.C. Chandor broke through in a major way with his Academy Award-nominated, star-studded directorial debut Margin Call. But for his follow-up this fast-rising writer-director attempted something even riskier than making sense of the 2008 financial crisis. He tossed away the use of dialogue, cast out to sea, and charted his entire film around one star, living screen legend Robert Redford. Using only a brief opening soliloquy and a smattering of exclamations, Chandor and Redford aimed to turn a 35-page script--made up mostly of stage directions--into a high-seas thriller about one man's struggle to survive when all seems lost.
Redford stars as this unnamed sailor who was out at sea, alone on his yacht, when disaster struck. Snoozing in his below deck cabin, this man, who I will call Captain, is awakened to the sound of rushing water as a free floating freight container tears a hole in the side of his boat. Rather than panic, our captain instantly and silently begins to assess the situation. His hi-tech gear is waterlogged, leaving him no way to easily navigate or contact help. To survive, he must rely on his stamina and wits.
No real background is given as to who this man is, where he came from, or why he is here 17,000 nautical miles from the Sumatra trade straits. Chandor instead hopes his hero's peril will be enough to bind audiences to his journey, a move even Alfonso Cuarón deemed too risky to commit to in the critically heralded Gravity. However, where Gravity could likely have jettisoned much of its backstory and still have been successful in snaring audience empathy, All Is Lost could have used some. Or else it could have taken a queue from that feature's dialogue, which carefully laid out the stakes of each sequence.
It's an exhausting cliché to have a character speak aloud to themselves to communicate what we the audience need to know. Savvy cinephiles may rightly roll their eyes at obvious exposition lines like "I am running out of air!" Or "If I can't pump out all this water, the boat will sink in less than an hour!" While there are more graceful ways to give us information like this, the key thing is that we are given it. Otherwise, the stakes of a situation can be unclear and thereby disengaging.
This was my main problem with All Is Lost. Faced with the possibility of his own death, Captain wordlessly begins working out a strategy to keep his head literally above water, but he keeps this plan to himself, never sharing it with those of us watching. Chandor takes for granted audiences may know exactly nothing about boating or open ocean sailing. As Captain never says anything along the lines of, “The first thing I have to do is plug up that hole!” or “If I don’t find fresh water I’ll die of dehydration before I can drown,” we are on our own to decipher what he is up to for large swaths of the narrative.
For me this was initially bewildering, then frustrating. Too often I was left wondering what this quiet protagonist was attempting to achieve. Without clear stakes on the situation's degradation, I got distracted and began to wonder why this nameless man was out here to begin with. By the film's final scene I had grown flat out flustered, feeling I knew Captain little better than I did when I caught him napping at the film's start. And with neither a clue who he is nor insight into the specifics of his conflict, I was rudderless for this journey, and left deeply bored by this supposed thriller. Redford is admirable in his commitment to such an unconventional film and such a physically demanding role. But without much character work to dig into, he is lost in Chandor’s ambitious but ultimately dead in the water endeavor. It was a noble experiment, but by my count it failed.
All Is Lost is screening at the New York Film Festival. For our complete New York Film Festival coverage, click here.