J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is an intelligent, precise nautical drama about a solitary American yachtsman, played by Robert Redford, who struggles to survive in the Indian Ocean after the hull of his boat is breached. Flooding soon destroys his electronic equipment, including his radio. Following a flash-forward, the film is devoted to showing how the man calmly marshals his modest seafaring skills and Crusoe-like adaptability to rap-idly changing circumstances.
Rare is the movie about masculine grace under pressure that doesn’t trumpet its protagonist’s true grit, but All Is Lost (the title ironic) is one of them. Redford’s rusty-haired Hemingway-esque hero simply gets on with the arduous business of staying alive, allowing himself a single bellow of frustration. Who this man is, why he is sailing solo, who (if anyone) awaits him back home, and how he has lived his life are issues that Chandor clearly felt would distract from the audience’s concentration on the man’s elemental struggle with nature. But because many of the tasks he performs are unabsorbing, idle speculation is inevitable. Is he a retired investigative journalist, a rogue CIA man, an ex-Weatherman on the run, or Jay Gatsby’s wandering mariner grandson? Anonymous, he’s a receptacle for fantasies.
Too resilient a figure to pass as an everyman, he is dubbed “Our Man” in the credits—the appellation awkwardly echoed in the lofty closing song “Amen” by Alex Ebert—and we root for him as we would if Gary Cooper had played the role 60 years ago. Chandor’s pragmatic, unemotive storytelling, which echoes the character’s utilitarianism and refusal to panic, eschews manipulativeness, though Ebert’s soundtrack sometimes errs on the melodramatic side, as it does when Our Man, cocooned in an inflatable dinghy, is tossed around by a storm at night.
Redford’s solitary seafarer overcomes obstacles through both ingenuity and luck. He stumbles on a method of purifying seawater and patches up a gash on his forehead. He catches a fish, which a shark promptly snaps up as he’s reeling it in, but resists any impulse to imitate Ahab or The Old Man and the Sea’s Santiago. Having navigated his way to a shipping lane, he is undeterred when vast container ships sweep past him, the crews failing to see the flares he sends up. (In a wry comment on globalization, the stray half-submerged shipping container that punctures a hole in Our Man’s yacht contains nothing more important than sneakers.) Only when he loses the ability to stay afloat in the final minute does it seem that the worst could happen.
Bold if scarcely experimental in its dispensing with all but a few lines of speech, the movie contrasts radically with Margin Call, Chandor’s 2011 debut. That chilling ensemble thriller drew on the impacted language of investment banking and the hierarchicalism of Wall Street to explore why the 2007-08 financial crisis was inevitable. The film delineates collective exculpation and scapegoating, and a corrupt version of what Herbert Hoover called “the American system of rugged individualism.”
There is no connection, however, between Margin Call’s buck-passing survivors and Our Man, whose rugged individualism (though non-violent) harks back to the purer archetype of the heroic frontiersman: Daniel Boone, Hawkeye, Teddy Roosevelt, the John Wayne of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who declares, as Redford’s sailor might, “Out here a man solves his own problems.” A lesser-known member of that group is John “Liver-Eating” Johnson, the Crow-killing mountain man Redford played in the 1972 Sydney Pollack Western Jeremiah Johnson, his most self-reliant loner until Our Man. Since there are strains of Emersonian independence and clear-eyed practicality in Redford—as both actor and Sundance founder—one senses that his iconic identity was helmsman Chandor’s lodestar.