It’s a thing of wonder that filmmaker JC Chandor made the mostly silent All is Lost, his second film, directly after the dialogue-stricken Margin Call, a corporate thriller (perhaps the most dialogue-heavy genre in existence), his feature debut. Of course, the difference between the two is more one of taste, but this second film, which knows not the realism of dialogue and must rely on the more affectingly filmic lens of pure imagery, is more satisfying as an elemental wonder and a parable of human loneliness. The narrative is archly straightforward, uninterested in fussy complication or false villains. We have an old man (Robert Redford) and we have a sea (well, the Indian Ocean), and these old friends find themselves for once on the opposite sides of an argument. We follow them as they resolve it.
More than anything, the film has the courage of its convictions – throughout, Redford doesn’t have anyone or anything to talk to. While most films such as this give their main character some respite from loneliness, here he has nothing but the wide openness of the land of the lost that is the sea, and the piercing reality that there is nothing to hold it up as its claustrophobic force ways down on you. Just as the old man has no respite in the form of dialogue with friends, neither do we – the film barely passes thirty words spoken throughout. We’re left with nothing but our relationship to the camera, our gaze upon one man left out in the sun too long, and our barren souls to console us from the film’s tragic, beaten-down malaise. Incidentally, none of the above manage to serve the purpose of making us feel well.
The film’s conflict is at once cathartically concrete in its ground-level immediacy and abstracted to the point of mythic timelessness. The film is at once hyper-detailed and streamlined in its minimalism, and both are refreshing. On one hand, it very much lets us live in the moment as we watch the man, who remains unnamed, live with himself over time. The conflict doesn’t rush itself, nor do we get the sense of event upon event, less the result of a pressurized situation than of screenwriterly contrivance, that threatened to turn Gravity into an exercise in its own grandiosity. Instead, the film is confident enough to show its main character slowly and even calmly come to terms with his situation. It lets up spend time with him not only as he solves immediate problems but as he contemplates, silently. If anything this enhances the lived-in feel of the film and grants it an existential dread absent some of its more chaotic peers.
At the same time, Chandor’s work is also deeply enigmatic and even intentionally distant in its presentation of its conflict. We know virtually nothing of the man’s back-story, including his name, and this allows the film to capture him as a mythic man who we come to understand through little human details rather than specific knowledge of his past. We don’t care about him because he is a specific person, but because he is any person, generalizing the conflict and giving it the abstract but nonetheless universally recognizable air of a fable. For that reason it is also unburdened by the often suffocating need for film to overload on dialogue. As a fable, it could be told differently and with different inflections over time, but Chandor’s film is interested in the universal core of the tale. He doesn’t give us any dialogue, which could serve only to specify and render the film less elemental, making it the story of one man rather than humankind – the visual story of images big and small tells us everything we need to know, and we can fill in the specifics at our own pace.
Which brings us, of course, to Redford. Almost all of the discussion around the film centered Redford’s performance. While I don’t mean to do Redford a disservice, the performance is rather intentionally not one. Rough around the edges and as weathered as his trademark sun-beaten skin, the role is intentionally under-performed, essaying not a human being or a deeply felt character but an iconographic figure who implacably exists. We don’t so much live with him and get to know him as view him from a distance, the film boxing him off like a mouse in a closed-off maze struggling to come to terms with the lack of meaning to his oppression. Redford exists here less as an actor than as a battered psyche and a reflection of humanity, a part of the landscape – this isn’t to say he’s not great here, but the one-note interpretation of the film which favors it as Redford’s film belies how it is very much Chandor’s treatment of Redford that sets the film apart. It is that these things happen to him, not the nuances of his reaction to them, which makes the film so tooth-and-nail in its despair and so universally applicable in its chaos. They happen, and there is nothing more, nothing to make sense of them or to console us. We have to confront it like a concrete slab, a happening that we simply must deal with.
Of course, this distance alone does not a film make – with such an elemental fable, it is the raw filmmaking, the relationship of the viewer to the visual and aural experience of bad things happening to a person, that establish the audience connection. To this extent, and treating first things first, the film’s sound design borders on awe-inspiring. It’s entirely lived-in, giving us a sense of every painful pragmatic decision facing our main character. Yet it also echoes the film’s abstraction of the human against nature conflict – noises often don’t correspond to what is physically displayed on-screen, giving the film a soundscape-of-the-mind that doesn’t so much correspond to reality as it conveys the ever-present fear and dread of the mental experience of that reality. Even when nothing is happening, the noise surrounds, envelops, and suffocates the mind, a sort of soundtrack of pure, almost-subliminal chaos, a low-level hiss knowing no logic or source and existing more to taunt than to make sense. The film is no slouch visually, and at least a few shots quaver with a profound unease, but the sound is incomparable.
More than anything, All is Lost plays like a primal interpretation of a well-worn genre that boils it down to its basics and strips it of any extraneous features. Even in its depiction of Redford, it gives us a movie star and knocks him down several notches by throwing him about for nearly two hours and giving him little chance to emote or enrapture the screen with his charismatic good looks and requisite charm. It’s a film that mythologizes his weathered features and moves them beyond the realm of modern storytelling and into that of timeless parables. And it’s a film that, appropriately enough, takes this mythology and makes it depressingly real with filmmaking as terse as can be. It does things the Heming-way, and elevates that lean lexicon to pure physical poetry.