All Is Lost
3 out of 4 stars
In his first film from 2011 (“Margin Call”), writer/director J.C. Chandor landed himself a dozen or so A-list actors and fed them reams of dialogue. It was based on real events — one firm’s mixed-bag reactions to the then impending 2008 financial crash. The crash in “All is Lost” is much smaller in scope and instead of multiple co-leads Chandor cast just one (Robert Redford). In addition to being the film’s only performer, the entirety of Redford’s dialogue consists of fewer words than are contained in this paragraph.
Most of those words come at the beginning via voice-over and (this is in no way a spoiler) if Chandor had placed them in the final scene and not the first, “All is Lost” would be an instant, four-star classic. Again not a spoiler, these spare words telegraph what’s going to happen for a certain stretch of time and become a supreme distraction. You might find yourself measuring the passing of on-screen time instead of getting thoroughly engrossed in the narrative. Fortunately, that’s all of the bad news.
It was mentioned in this column two weeks ago that Tom Hanks will probably receive an Oscar nomination for “Captain Phillips” but he will lose, but it might not be because of Redford who will also be nominated (ironically, both actors star in movies that take place aboard ships on African waters). Like Clint Eastwood, Redford dominated the box office in the late ’60s and early ’70s not so much because he was a great actor but more so because he was very attractive, was selective in what roles to take and was a man who — as Eastwood’s Dirty Harry once proclaimed — knows his limitations. You can lump the equally astute Brad Pitt and George Clooney into this elite camp as well.
Named only as “Our Man” in the credits, Redford plays a sailboater who — for reasons that aren’t made clear and really don’t matter — is in the Sumatra Straits (the body of water that connects the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean). This is about as far away from anything (save for automated cargo ships) as any sailor could possibly be which soon proves to be problematic.
While dozing in his cabin, an errant cargo container collides with Our Man’s boat and the water starts gushing in. This wouldn’t have been quite so bad if it hadn’t hit the part of the boat near the laptop computer and electronic communications equipment. In the first in a series of quick-thinking and resourceful moves, Our Man gets the water out of the boat and cleverly constructs a patch over the hole.
To describe what follows over the course of the rest of the film wouldn’t be analysis or criticism but rather basic plot summary, which is again, problematic. Chandor’s movie kind of plays out like a quasi-silent documentary or a semi-art-house action flick. While he could have gone the route of “Life of Pi” or “Cast Away” (another Hanks movie) and had Our Man speak (unnaturally) to inanimate or non-existent objects, he took a huge gamble by employing mostly non-verbal communication in what is effectively a high-end video how-to survival guide. This is brave, original and highly unorthodox filmmaking that is technically impressive but is also (not so surprisingly) not ideal for mass consumption.
As pointed out in the “Captain Phillips” review two weeks ago, Redford’s considerable efforts here are totally reactive acting, but without the luxury of exploratory dialogue. Our Man is reacting to what nature throws at him and Redford — now in his mid-70s — is called on to perform a number of physical duties in the movie that would wind a man half his age and he does it very well. Is that great acting or just the result of merely being in exceptional shape?
That’s the conundrum that will face Academy Award voters next February. Unlike his “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” co-star Paul Newman, Redford has received only one non-winning previous acting nomination (“The Sting”), but did win (some say undeservedly) the Best Director Oscar for “Ordinary People” (also his first directorial effort). In other words, Redford will be considered by some to rightfully deserve a pseudo “lifetime achievement” Oscar simply because of endurance and sweat equity rather than pure craft. (Take note: Redford also received another Oscar for founding the Sundance Film Festival.) As Hanks has already won two acting awards and is (relatively) younger, that makes the argument all the stronger, right?
The not-so wild card in the mix that will likely edge out both Redford and Hanks is the “12 Years a Slave” lead Chiwetel Ejiofor — who will probably be the next Best Lead Actor Oscar winner. Two 21st-century guys on boats are indeed compelling but not quite enough to trump a 19th century free man illegally sold into slavery. (Lionsgate)