‘I tried to be kind, I tried to be loving, I tried to be strong. All is lost here, except body and soul…’
These are the only words [apart from a few sunburnt utterances later on, plus a cathartic yell to the Gods] in JC Chandor’s almost dialogue-less All is Lost, which opens with a slow moving pan across a barren sea to Robert Redford’s voiceover, playing an unnamed character in this slow moving disaster movie.
At first, as the film unfolds, giving us a picture of a character [it could be Robert Redford playing himself] who, finding his boat pierced at the waterline by an abandoned Chinese container filled with children’s trainers, spends the next 100 minutes battling all that the natural world can throw at him in order to survive, I was convinced that what I had just heard was half a suicide note.
To make it a little bit more frustrating, no information is given about Redford’s character, no name, background or why he’s out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Perhaps he’s there to die? Perhaps he is willing the natural world to do its worst, in a kind of ‘as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods’ way. Certainly Redford battles each storm, each prolonged ducking into the sea his fast sinking boat gives him, with equal grimness and with barely any character development – he reacts to each struggle, to each ship blind to his desperate flares, with the same gritty determination. At first I began to think that this lack of character development makes the film too sparse, after all it’s the conflicts of Sandra Bullock’s Rylan Stone in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, that make her struggles to physically survive all the more exhilarating and internal. But then I thought, am I perhaps missing the point? As we are taken through this long sea voyage, where one eternally expects the arrival of some sort of metaphorical albatross at least, we realise that that albatross might in fact be ourselves, that in fact, our expectations of Robert Redford’s character – and perhaps of life too – hang around his neck [and ours] like some great dead and punishing weight. But it is actually a relief, as time goes on and as Redford faces disaster after disaster, to forget the mind. It is a relief to not to have to worry, along with the character, about unresolved conflicts, past failures or cope with anxious thoughts about loved ones waiting at home, but instead focus on surviving. This makes All is Lost a very pure film and an existentialist comment on the nature of existence, without the need for metaphor.
Saying this though, there is some beautiful allegorical imagery. Seen from below, Redford’s lifeboat raft at one point seems to symbolise the eternal ring of fire, shadowed by an impressive batch of fish in some sort of universal dance. But at others, Redford curls into the raft in the shape of a foetus, and seen from above, and drifting in the sea, it’s possible to think back to the birth of the character [or Redford himself] and see birth and his possible impending death as virtually the same thing… he is a man nearing the end of a great journey, which in itself, turns out to be cyclical…I refer back to the beginning..’I tried to be kind, I tried to be loving..’
But what’s refreshing about this film is that, not only does its narrative as a whole serve as a metaphor for the human struggle [in the same way as Gravity does], it also gives the audience the opportunity to interpret it in any way they like – and the considerably ambiguous ending brilliantly exemplifies this..it’s very Beckettian. Full of silence, full of sounds you might never normally hear unless forced into such circumstances, All is Lost is ultimately a film about acceptance, letting go and living- with alertness- within the present. It’s a brave film by JC Chandor, and a triumph for Robert Redford, whose presence fills the screen with a mesmerising gravity for its near two hour duration.
All is Lost is in UK cinemas now.