Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sink, Sank, Sunk: ALL IS LOST

Halfway through All is Lost, I felt seasick. I remained queasy into the end credits and felt myself wobbling on the way out of the theater, like I was adjusting to walking on land again. In the film, the camera bobs as the weight of the boat, the film’s only set, slowly rocks while the sound of sloshing waves is omnipresent. The film is a convincing and spare look at a man lost at sea, his sailboat taking on water as he drifts through the Indian Ocean. Who is he? Why is he here? What has he to lose, beyond his life? Writer-director J.C. Chandor doesn't say. We don't even learn the man's name. He’s listed in the credits as Our Man. But because Robert Redford plays Our Man, wise wrinkles crinkling with the concern painting his 77-year-old face, he's someone who carries with him a sense of history nonetheless. We care about him instantly, because we carry with us a collective cinematic memory of him. He’s been acting on screen for 54 years. All he needs to do is stand in the frame and we’d feel we know him, even if we learn nothing more about him.

We find Our Man waking below deck to the sound of water sloshing up against his bed. The following scenes show a man of great resourcefulness doing everything right, setting about repairing the boat methodically and thoroughly while drifting at sea. We learn about him through action, the screenplay an example of all show, no tell. The only words we hear are his muttered curses. Presented in careful detail, it has an air of authenticity about it, like a worst-case-scenario handbook come to life. Call it Introduction to Crisis Boat Repair. He patches the hole, dries his stuff, and attempts to fix his soaked radio. If I were in his position, I would be panicking. In his supreme competence, he does far more than I would've thought to do, but then again I wouldn't think to go sailing alone in the Indian Ocean, either. I mean, I got seasick just watching this movie.

Chandor crafts a story of faux-Hemingway sparseness and blunt import. Redford's visage is what we watch, straining for clues. Who knows that he is out here? Who will miss him when he’s gone? Our Man is lost, weather a constant antagonist, working to undo the progress he’s making. Baking sun, wild waves, and downpours of rain make for relentless enemies. In the dubious tradition of characters named for easy surface access to the themes of their story, he’s clearly a signifier of masculinity and maleness, ruggedly moving forward in the face of impossible odds. He’s adrift in this world, battered by commercial impulses of our globalized economy (it’s a stray shipping container full of sneakers that punctures the side of his boat), and left with all lost. Hope rises and falls like the waves and weather that cause hope to dwindle with every passing hour. Still he tries to find new ways to scrape by.

That’s all well and good, but Chandor’s film is one that cut me loose pretty quickly, frustrating me with the obviousness of its symbolism and its stinginess with character. It’s Redford’s performance that holds it together, in conjunction with the impeccable sound design that swirls around him. What feels so bracing at first – a quiet walkthrough step by step as new obstacles are confronted with the ever-resourceful skills of Our Man – grows grating and repetitive. We get a glimpse of his wrecked boat in the opening shot before flashing backwards a specific period of days. The rest of the film is spent slowly getting to and then past the spot where we came in. After a while, I found myself counting sunrises and sunsets, sinking into my chair as I realized just how far we had to go.

There’s just too little for me to hold onto. If you find the anonymous man’s plight engaging, I can only say I wish I had seen the movie the way you do. From where I sat, Alex Ebert’s nice score grows maddening. Blurry artful shots from underwater, complete with CGI schools of sea creatures wiggling past, feel like nothing more than treading water, a wasted attempt to add visual interest to a film otherwise so visually dull that I was yearning for any personality behind the camera. It’s unfair to compare All is Lost to Life of Pi, since it’s not attempting the same transcendence and abstraction of that man-lost-at-sea picture. But it would’ve been nice to have a little visual interest beyond professional shininess, caught somewhere between heightened Hollywood jolts and slow cinema contemplation. Chandor’s film is as spare and functional as Our Man, highly capable, but still sinking fast.

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