The power of the human spirit and the inherent will to survive is a fascinating aspect of our makeup, perhaps never explored more interestingly than in All Is Lost. The 2013 film by J. C. Chandor is nothing short of a cinematic miracle, preserving for all time one of the screen’s most celebrated actors in a career-defining role in a one person, essentially silent film. The technical excellence of the film would have been enough to etch it into the history books of cinema, but for it to also to carry a narrative as compelling as survival against not only the elements but also oneself makes All Is Lost one of the most phenomenal films I have ever seen. Rarely is a film able to communicate the depths of a person’s soul with the mastery Chandor accomplishes, but to do so with a one-person cast and almost no dialogue is reason enough to send All Is Lost through time and space to be preserved as the ultimate testament to the capabilities of the human being.
Indeed, All Is Lost succeeds so well as a film due to the excellent casting of Robert Redford in the lead (only) role. The diverse veteran actor was the perfect person to bring to life the tale of a loner, who seems to have always favored isolation until faced with his mortality. Redford capably plays against type in this role, leaving behind his typically wry disposition in favor of a more solemn approach to the pensive sailor played in All Is Lost. Meditating on the journey of the human being and our desperation to survive, All Is Lost should be required viewing for all of humanity, even those of us who don’t set out on solo voyages in the Indian Ocean.
Beginning at the end—a brilliant film technique if done properly—All Is Lost opens with Robert Redford’s character, an unnamed man (Our Man), narrating a letter he has written that seems to apologize for failings he has interpreted as making throughout his life. Who the character is writing the letter to is unclear; what is also unknown to the audience, at this point, is that this will be the last bit of dialogue heard throughout the film. What is apparent, through the words, is that we are facing someone who has lived most of his life alone and contemplated his decisions intensely. As the film pulls back to reveal what happened, we see Our Man abruptly awoken from sleep to a crashing noise and the sound of rushing water. He soon discovers that his yacht has struck a shipping container and is taking on water. In a captivating actualization of the rapid-fire human mind, we see Our Man quickly adapt to his new situation, as he recognizes the damage and adjusts to planning out in his mind what to do next.
He then immediately begins to act, fetching his radio, repair supplies, and changing his sail to release his yacht from the shipping container in hopes of preventing further damage. Our minds make hundreds of split decisions every day that are a direct response to our stimuli that go unnoticed by us as we go about our days. Though many of us don’t face life or death consequences as a result of the actions we take, it is incredible to see the phenomenon of the human mind on-screen as Redford brilliantly portrays. The more time passes, and the more obstacles Our Man encounters, it becomes clear that he has inadvertently embarked on a battle for his life. Through the storm, the blazing sun, running out of food, and even an encounter with a shark, the protagonist never loses his determination to survive even when his situation looks the bleakest.
“All is lost except for soul and body, at least what’s left of them” is a standout line from the opening narration that leaves the audience questioning what is driving Our Man so hard toward preserving his existence. We know that he is burdened by the regrets from the choices he has made in life, and we see that he leads a predominately solitary existence. So, does his will to survive come from a purely instinctual product of evolution or is something else at play here? Perhaps he seeks redemption for what he has done or maybe he is just not done sailing yet but, whatever the drive, his quest for survival and the battle he wages against himself, as he quiets every inclination to give up, culminates in a captivating way to spend 106 minutes.
It’s a miracle that a film like All Is Lost would even be made in 2013, as it is so wholly its own and unprecedented that it seems shocking that producers would have taken a chance on it. Perhaps influenced by the Best Picture-winning film The Artist two years prior, All Is Lost brought to audiences another film with almost no dialogue; though this film was devoid of musical numbers and silent film homages and, instead, takes place in the middle of the ocean. It’s impressive to me anytime a one-location film with a small cast is made, as it puts such emphasis on the story and actors chosen. Far from merely being a tale of survival, All Is Lost is a meditation on mortality and an examination of one’s life that can only be brought about by facing almost certain death. The protagonist is nameless in an astute way to communicate to the audience that we all share this connective thread of existence. We were all born, and will all die, making choices along the way that impact the people with whom we share the planet.
There will come a time where we all will face the end of our lives and encounter the opportunity to decide how we feel about the way we have lived, and as intimidating as that reflection may be, it is also an empowering feature of our human experience. Was the term G.O.A.T. born with Robert Redford? Redford shines like the absolute star he is in All Is Lost which is perhaps, though it’s so hard to decide, my favorite role of his. I was utterly devastated the day of the Academy Awards nominations for 2013, and Robert Redford’s name was not called in the Best Actor category. I was so distraught that I called into work to take a personal day and comforted myself by watching a collection of Robert Redford movies, desperately trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter if one of the best actors to ever live would be awarded an Oscar. I still think it’s shocking that Robert Redford has only won a single competitive Oscar, and it was in the Directing category for his exceptional Ordinary People. 2013 was a long time ago, and even though I still love the Oscars and their celebration of cinema, I don’t need to take days off work if my favorites don’t receive their due nominations.
In an exquisite display of nonverbal acting, the audience can’t help but feel the desperation that Redford communicates with a single look. The desperation in his face is palpable when he looks down at his bag of flares and realizes that there is only one left as a passing liner drifts further away. The isolation he is feeling as he looks around to see miles of emptiness surrounding him spears the audience’s heart through Redford’s gaze. The fear expressed through body language—experienced when he works so resourcefully to catch a fish, only to realize that there is a school of sharks underneath him—brings the audience into the boat with him, creating a tension I didn’t know was possible in such a film. The age-positivity is yet another aspect of the film deserving of praise. Robert Redford was 77 years old during the filming of All Is Lost, and J. C. Chandor wrote a physically demanding, agility-requiring role that proved self-sufficiency doesn’t have an expiration date. The true measure of a person and the determination of the human spirit defy all societal constructs and remain the bowline that tethers us all together.