All Is Lost, the new film from J.C. Chandor, begins with an apology. As the camera surveys a cargo container, floating inexplicably in the middle of a calm ocean, we hear the movie’s only substantial dialogue, a letter read in voiceover by the film’s main and single character (Robert Redford, identified in the credits only as “Our Man”). He says he’s sorry and begs for understanding. He makes it clear that while he always tried to do right, he knows he made mistakes. “All is lost here,” he says. He sounds resigned to his death, tired. He closes with another apology, though never says who he’s addressing. What he seems to be asking for more than anything else is forgiveness. Then we flash back to eight days prior, to the events that led him to the edge of death.
We spend our lives accumulating things, and maybe you can tell whatever you need to know about a person from what he’s either chosen to keep, or been unable to discard. Our Man seems to have spent his life collecting the tools of solitude. First, there’s the handsome yacht, the thing that has carried him away from the world. As the flashback begins, he awakens aboard it to the small but terrifying sound of water rushing close by. He discovers that the drifting cargo container we saw during the voiceover has rammed his vessel. Seawater pours through a hole in the hull. He patches the hole easily enough, but finds that his radio and navigational equipment—tools for keeping the world just within reach—have been shorted out by the flood. Soon he’s sailing blindly into a violent storm, and the ship capsizes, rights itself, capsizes again, rights itself again. Our Man is thrown into a post and knocked unconscious. When he comes to, the storm is still raging and his boat is hopelessly damaged—a new hole is smashed in the hull, the mast is broken, and it sits barely above the waterline. And now he’s forced to make use of the tools of self-sufficiency that make solitude possible: He gathers a sextant and maps, flares, what food he has, and launches his life raft. He decides his best hope for survival is to try to make it to some (relatively) nearby shipping lanes and flag down a passing cargo carrier.
All Is Lost takes us through a series of worst-case scenarios that inch Our Man closer every minute to death, and at the heart of it all, there’s Redford. It’s hard to overstate his perfection in this role. As much as the yacht or the radio or any of the other physical things tell the story of Our Man’s solitude, it’s Redford’s face where we see an accumulation of the things that might make a man seek such solitude in the first place: a grief or melancholy, or maybe regret, the thing that accrues quietly over the years like bilge water to weigh us down. The thing that might make a man seek the forgiveness he seems to ask for, though doesn’t name specifically, in the opening voiceover.
Redford is getting a lot of deserved attention for his performance—almost definitely more than for any other role in a long career that hasn’t exactly been cluttered with critical acclaim. Redford has always been considered more a movie star than an actor, but his directorial career, charitable endeavors, and distaste for Hollywood culture have helped him break away from the implied shallowness of that label. So while it’s true he’s tremendous in this role, the truth is that in a way, he’s doing what he’s always done: underplaying, building a performance with gestures and small details, saying more with less. The remoteness and cantankerous energy that seemed like petulance in his youth seem here, with the weight of years and wrinkles and reputation (Redford is 77, but could pass for a weathered 60), more like depth, texture, and feeling. His performance is exceptional, but less a revelation or turning point in his dramatic abilities than an instance of perfect harmony between actor and role. Put another way, casting is 90% of acting.
From the start, All Is Lost understands what makes the survival genre great: an uncompromising dedication to what happens on the screen and a refusal to linger over why it happens or what it means. It’s easy to miss just how many narrative embellishments the average film indulges in until you see a film like this one, with almost none. Almost every survival film boils the plot tension down to its essence: one man against the world. But I can’t think of another film in the genre that strips it all quite so bare. Most survival films give their heroes backstories that will magnify the significance of their struggles, some family or companion the hero is trying to get back to—Kelly in Castaway, or Ana in The Gray—but not here. Chandor, who wrote and directed All Is Lost, understands that when you’re watching a man fight for his life, you don’t need flourishes. Backstory or not, it’s all but impossible to watch the film without feeling a mix of tension, sympathy, and admiration for Our Man’s skills. And like the main character himself, as a viewer there’s very little time to think about what’s brought him here and what it all means—the problems and complication simply come too quickly.
But in the few contemplative moments of the movie, it’s hard not to wonder about its hero. His backstory is not just ignored. It feels intentionally concealed. There are clues, of course. There’s the voiceover—what are these mistakes he’s made, and who is the intended recipient of the letter (which he eventually closes up in a jar and throws into the water, sending it off into all the vast emptiness with which he’s surrounded himself)? And why is he alone in the Indian Ocean to begin with? And then there are some of Our Man’s choices—why, when the storm is approaching, does he pause in his urgent preparations to shave? Why when the raindrops begin to fall does he take time to stand on the deck, rubbing the water into the skin of his arms, his face turned skyward?
The truth is that we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I don’t believe we’re meant to know, but one does wonder. Relieving the film of its backstory does more than liberate the action from unnecessary detail. Streamlined in this way, All Is Lost becomes a lean piece of storytelling, a fascinating and gripping how-to manual for surviving a terrible series of misfortunes on the high seas. But it also becomes almost the opposite of a character study. It’s not a story about Our Man’s survival, but about survival in general. It’s not about Our Man finding forgiveness for whatever mistakes he’s made, but about the nature of making oneself worthy of forgiveness.
The title of the film makes it clear what the story will show us: loss. Our Man’s ability to navigate is lost, then his yacht is lost, then his potable water, a fish he catches only to have it stolen by a shark at the last moment, and finally, it can be assumed, his life. All is lost. The story is a process of stripping things away until nothing is left, not even the self. But ultimately, the movie seems to say that only in such a state of selflessness, of essence and utter prostration, can one be truly saved, found, and—if we can use the movie’s only real dialogue as a guide to the story’s meaning—forgiven. “All is lost” sounds like doom. But here, losing everything is salvation.