In 1944 Alfred Hitchcock directed “Lifeboat,” a film that, with the exception of a few shots, was set entirely aboard a boat carrying the surviving passengers of a luxury ship torpedoed by the Germans. Hitchcock added a musical score, and when asked whether the audience wouldn’t wonder about the music reaching a boat stranded in the vast reaches of the Atlantic, he answered that if the audience did not wonder at the presence of the camera, it would accept the music as well.
I recalled this anecdote while watching “All Is Lost,” the second long feature of American director J. C. Chandor, about a sailor whose vessel is incapacitated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A shipping container full of sneakers that fell off a passing cargo ship collides with his yacht and tears a hole in its side. There is music in the movie, which focuses entirely on the efforts of the unnamed hero to survive the reality caused by the collision − a reality in which, as the title hints, everything may have been lost. “All Is Lost” is as extreme and perhaps as experimental as Hitchcock’s film, and here, too, we do not ask ourselves where the music or camera have come from. Chandor’s camera work is so skillful and sophisticated, and his use of music so perfectly timed, that even if such silly questions were to pop up in our minds, the sheer force of the movie would drive them away.
I first encountered Chandor’s name when I saw his 2011 debut picture, “Margin Call,” which passed through our theaters too quickly. “Margin Call” was a sharp, intelligent drama that also took place mostly in a single location − the offices of a New York investment house − and within a limited time frame, a single day and night during which the firm’s executives prepare for its imminent collapse, just before the world financial crisis of 2008. That movie already caused me to mark Chandor as a director worth following, and “All Is Lost” has fulfilled that expectation.
One of the most interesting aspects of “All Is Lost” is that in some ways it seems like the antithesis of “Margin Call,” even though both pictures turn the stories they tell into allegories of survival against ever-mounting odds. Whereas “Margin Call” featured numerous characters, each with a carefully defined identity, and its drama was largely based on dialogue, “All Is Lost” is a one-man film, and aside from a single letter to his family that we hear the hero narrating at the beginning and some one-word exclamations and curses he calls out in the course of the movie, there is no dialogue at all.
The power and beauty of “All Is Lost” come from the stubborn, even calm way it follows the hero’s actions as he looks for a way out of his predicament and reacts to the upheavals that take place in the nowhere surrounding him and his wounded yacht, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. This is a movie about the effort to survive as constant activity (and, if you will, about film as the art of unfolding action); activity that is determined, unyielding, even cold. These qualities are what keeps “All Is Lost” from turning into a too-blunt existential allegory. The movie is too practical to become very spiritual. At the same time, it is filled with distress, growing anxiety, and the recognition of how arbitrary and random fate can be. That is what makes the experience of watching it both powerful and surprisingly gentle: few movies have explored the possibility of the impending end with such practical, direct and unsentimental delicacy.
A one-man film, I have said, and not just any man: the only role is played by 77-year-old Robert Redford, and I can’t imagine the movie with anyone else but him. It is not just Redford’s age and his lined, still-handsome face that make his presence in “All Is Lost” so powerful, but the fact that it is Robert Redford − the most prominent symbol of WASPy American stability in American filmmaking since the 1960s − who plays the nameless sailor, a man who loved being alone on his yacht in the ocean until that coveted solitude became a threat to his existence. Redford is active all through the movie. His body, still lithe but not the body of a superhero, is the engine that propels “All Is Lost” along. We follow every nuance of his movements but also of his eyes, whose gaze changes as his predicament worsens.
It is the fair-haired, glamorous WASPy stability that Redford represented in his best movies that comes under existential threat in “All Is Lost.” In this sense, too, Chandor’s new film follows in the footsteps of “Margin Call”: it is an existential American allegory first, and only then a universal one. Redford’s performance is powerful because, despite his character’s namelessness, he does not make him into Everyman. He is one specific character, whom we get to know and thus identify with. The result is an intimacy that clashes with the endless expanses of the sea, which threaten, assault and thrill all at once. Redford’s performance embodies the very essence of existing before a movie camera. It is a tour de force.