Serenity at Sea
Above all else, it’s Robert Redford’s hands that director J.C. Chandor chooses to emphasize the most in All Is Lost. Scarred and weathered, they pull his yacht’s sails and grip rope, highlighted by his golden band. They throw flares and wave for help, substitutions for broken radios and a hoarse throat. He is alone at sea, specifically the Indian Ocean, surviving disaster with dexterity.
Hands can talk, too, for those that don’t speak or can’t hear. That’s never been troublesome for the 77-year-old Redford, but alone on the ocean, speaking is unnecessary in its very logistical sense. And so, remarkably and spiritually, the entire film, except an opening narrated apology and a few timely epithets, lacks any dialogue. The only noise bursts from storm clouds and rip tides and the fateful crash that pits “Our Man,” the only name he’s known by in the credits, into a sinking, perilous fate.
Maybe this was a personal vacation, maybe an escape from his domesticity and wife, whom he vaguely recalls with that wedding ring. We don’t ever know. A loose floating cargo box, filled with sneakers that pile out of the metal crate, punctures his boat. Water pours into his cabin and he must work to pump it all out and dry it all up. Of course, when one of many severe storms hits him 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatran Straits, the temporary fix becomes a permanent rupture. The boat spins upside down during the treacherous journey, which plays like a seasick nightmare and all Our Man can do is hold on. Survival is the buzzword in movies these days, whether it’s up in space or just west of Redford’s sinking sails where Somali pirates make their attacks. You can’t help but think of the conflating Captain Phillips story line when a massive Maersk cargo ship passes Our Man en route to Europe. The hands wave, the flare brightens, but no one on deck sees his yellow lifeboat, bobbing in the infinite pool. It is a cargo ship’s container that has thrown his life into jeopardy and it is the ship itself that neglects his stranded presence. The allegories ripple like the waves around him. Here is a crusted white man whose sunny expedition has been paralyzed by a container of shoes, likely made by oppressed hands, likely made for American dreamers.
But that crusted white man still has some color in that strawberry blonde hair and sunburned skin. Redford doesn’t seem a likely hero of the sea, or even a man with the physical strength to overcome tidal wave magnitudes. And yet Chandor selects this actor because he has the ability to tell a story with everything but his chapped, dry lips. His presence alone captivates. His face is a map of crevasses and roads, journeys and blemishes made all the more real when he spends time shaving and slipping on his bright orange wetsuit. In Redford you see a man at once worn and resilient, a man who has given so much and wants to keep giving.
Narratively, the film’s details are best left undocumented, but chronologically cycle. There are peaks and valleys, rays of hope and clouds of desolation that cast light and shadow. Chandor, whose first feature Margin Call dealt with chatty elites during the 2008 economic crisis, changes pace and location. If that film dealt with prospects of the haves and have-nots, All Is Lost visually gets rid of any dichotomy. The sea and sky often converge into the night. Yacht and life raft flip and up becomes down. Our Man learns to traverse the ocean by the stars, which luminously reflect beneath him.
The opening passage Redford reads aloud is later- but really earlier in time- a handwritten message he stuffs into a glass jar. It’s a sincere apology to someone, probably the spouse tethered to his ring. Something about it feels inherently true, a message burdened with an impending fatal mentality. It feels true because every time he reaches out to hold on for dear life, we see that ring on his hand, and know that it, in its symbolical attached other’s pain, suffering, and love, is holding on, too. 4/5