Making the Grades
Robert Redford commands every scene in the man-virus-nature movie All Is Lost. However his co-star, Mother Nature, gives a pretty impressive performance as well. Redford’s character, who doesn’t even warrant a name, is alone at sea on a 39-foot yacht. And his lack of sailing skills suggests he has no business being out in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
However we know nothing about him, except that he wears a large, jeweled ring and has someone at home—someone who deserves an apology. With only a smattering of dialogue (which unfortunately includes a handful of partial profanities and one strong sexual expletive), this story unfolds with visuals. It’s 106 minutes of watching a tight-lipped Redford face one challenge after another because a cargo container floating in the middle of the ocean has punctured the hull of his boat.
Salt water pours through the jagged opening soaking his bed, belongings and most importantly his communications radio. He barely has the flood mopped up and the hole partially covered when a tropical storm appears on the horizon. Without any means of signaling for help, he is plunged into the wild weather. And the elements show no mercy, flipping the yacht over like a toy in a bathtub. By the time the next squall arrives, the lone shipman is forced to abandon his wooden vessel for the safety of a lifeboat.
All Is Lost requires more than casual attention. The cinematography is stunning, capturing the endless isolation of the ocean, the constraints of the lifeboat and the weakening vigor of the mariner. Without dialogue or often even a traditional musical score to move the story forward, the film relies on the relentless sounds of waves and rain, along with the moans and creaks of the ship. The old man, played by the 77-year-old Redford, never verbalizes his feelings (except for the uttered profanities). It’s his face that reveals the emotions wrestling inside him as he confronts his own mortality as he is tossed into the rough seas (a difficult acting gig for any actor).
The character’s anonymity is likely meant to make him more accessible to the audience. There is nothing that distinguishes him as being notably different from anyone else. But the lack of back-story or even a hint about his identity left me wondering why I should care. Unlike the FedEx executive in Cast Away or the suddenly orphaned boy in Life of Pi, who were thrust into their circumstances by disaster, we’re left to believe this aging sailor is there by choice. That leaves a lot of questions. What is he running from? Is this a mid-life crisis gone awry? Does he deserve the audience’s empathy or is this predicament the result of his own poor choices?
Perhaps that is asking too much from this artistically and technically engaging endeavor. After all, what should be more compelling than the human struggle for survival? But for myself, I just want to know what’s at stake when everything is one the line.
Release Date: 18 October 2013 (Limited)
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about All Is Lost.
What scenes suggest that this sailor might not be fully prepared to be out alone? How difficult would it be to learn to navigate from the stars and horizon using only a sextant? Does he appear to have any backup plan?
Is it more difficult to feel empathy for a character that we know very little about? Who do you think he is writing his final letter to?
How do the filmmakers use the forces of nature to create tension? How does the actor express his emotion? Does the lack of dialogue make the viewer more involved? What other visual elements add to the action of the story?