Tuesday, October 29, 2013

All Is Lost

This wasn't necessarily the movie I'd been planning to see that night, but it worked out that the toy store that I had the best chance of reaching before closing time was close to the Coolidge and this was the thing that started at the most convenient time. Fortunately, this was something high on my priority list anyway, as opposed to the usual "don't buy based on starting time" cautionary tale.

Before getting to the review, I have to admit I found something kind of odd - the DCP file (I presume this was DCP, as there were none of the usual reel markers, dropouts, etc., that even new prints tend to sport) ended with a screen saying the film had been rated R, which surprised the rest of us left in the theater; I actually heard some of the other folks trying to pin down where the other use of the f-word was, because that's the only thing in it that could really seem to get it that harsh a rating. I see online that it's apparently rated PG-13, which makes a lot more sense.

Its kind of amusing to stay through the credits for other reasons, too, from how it blocks off a "Cast" section for one line ("Our Man - Robert Redford") and a number of other credits that are kind of amusing for their playfulness: Listing "The Atlantic Ocean" and "The Pacific Ocean" as filming locations, or describing how the production purchased three yachts that all made the ultimate sacrifice over the course of filming stick out, but there were a few others.

So, as has become a bit of a trend for the weekend, give the main review a read at EFC, and then (if you've already seen it or don't mind being spoiled), come back for some speculation about the movie and talk about the ending.

All Is Lost

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2013 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

At times, All Is Lost presents itself as pure problem-solving porn: No speaking, no backstory, not necessarily even much of a sense that filmmaker J.C. Chandor has anything else on his mind besides just showing what's happening to its nameless protagonist. That is, in fact, all it needs, but Chandor, star Robert Redford, and company put plenty more in for the audience to unpack.

Things start out simply enough: A man (Redford) is sailing in the middle of the Indian Ocean on his own, and is awakened by water sloshing around the cabin of his yacht. A container full of sneakers has fallen off a merchant ship, crossed the path of the Virginia Jean, and ripped a gash in the side of the 39-foot vessel, incidentally shorting out the electronic navigation and communication equipment. This doesn't seem like anything beyond our man's ability to handle, but that doesn't take an approaching storm into account.

That's not quite where the movie starts; it actually opens with a bit of pessimistic voice-over followed by an "eight days earlier" caption, and that may be Chandor setting himself up with a challenge: Some in the audience are going to start counting day/night cycles at that point, and it's a sign of just how good a job Chandor does as director that it's still quite possible to lose track of that number as the audience gets caught up in the moment on the one hand while on the other, the solitude and distance makes time meaningless. The audience gets locked into this man's perspective as to start seeing the world as he does, something a great many films try to achieve, though few do.

Part of it may be that he's a fairly blank slate; the opening narration implies that there is someone important in his life but can also be read as there being a rift between them. Redford delivers a great performance regardless; there's something to the unpanicked way he goes about repairing his boat that suggests more than just competence. Defiance, perhaps, or a sort of rebuke to someone who said he couldn't handle this voyage alone. He does this without speaking, for the most part - there are about five lines in the entire film - but even if part of what's going on in his head is open to interpretation, there's a lot clearly communicated, from the moment when he opens a box and seems to say "okay, I have a sextant - now what?" to the moments when despair finally starts to overtake him. It doesn't hurt at all that Redford is kind of ideal for the part physically - spry, but still old enough that his experience comes at the price of a measured pace, and with the sort of build and complexion that shows the toll that the open sea takes on a man right away.

Redford's performance and Chandor's careful construction (with the help of editor Pete Beaudreau) make for such good storytelling that it might be easy to overlook just how technically impressive All Is Lost is for such a relatively small production. It's not just a matter of the gorgeous cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zucarini or what must be some fantastic hidden effects work - after all, it's not like they're going to wait for word of a life-threatening storm and stick Redford in the middle. It's the sound design where something about the ship sounding off alerts the audience to danger at the same time as the character, or how perfectly ominous clouds on the horizon can be. There's no room in a movie meant to put the audience into a character's situation for visible cracks, and the filmmakers certainly hide them well, at least from those of us who aren't expert sailors.

I don't think immersion is all Chandor and company were trying to achieve with the movie, though what the end means may vary by the viewer. I think there's a fairly pointed barb at the impersonality of large, global corporations set up from the very beginning; I also find myself fascinated by the actions taken in the last few scenes. In a way, the way the movie ends is as impressive a bit of structuring as the caption at the start - it transforms a movie that can often seem to be strictly about actions to one where ideas and character are just as important with unusual grace.

And if you just want to go, watch, and marvel at the way Chandor and Redford go about their business telling this story, do so. It's a thrilling adventure first and foremost, and that it can impress for other reasons is a substantial bonus.

(Previously at EFC)


It's a bit amusing to me that I saw this the same week as Captain Phillips, and so sort of laughed when one of the freighters that passes Our Man toward the end is from the Maersk Line company - I wonder if they were okay with their ship passing the man in the lifeboat without making a move, and if Chandor perhaps gave them a script that specified that it was impossible for the crew to see him. It seems like a little thing, but I think that's actually one of the most important points in the movie, and it doesn't necessarily reflect well on the large company.

Which, I think, is the point; without Chandor making a vocal stand, he does seem to be pointing out large corporations and globalization are destructive. Our Man's ship is damaged and ultimately sunk by a shipping container full of sneakers - things most audience members will realize come from an overseas factory - and when his lifeboat later moves through the shipping lanes, the two large freighters that we see pass not only don't acknowledge his flares, but they don't even seem to have any human occupants. And while we never get a particularly clear look at his eventual rescuer, it's easy enough to see that it's a smaller vessel, small enough that we can see a human hand and arm reach down for him.

This leaves a couple of other areas to look at - first, Our Man himself. He's older, retired, on this trip alone. The note he writes is apologetic, but eventually cast into the sea. In fact, the manner of how he goes about surviving on his own without feeling the need to talk to someone, even himself, suggests he's not connected to humanity much at all. It makes me wonder if, perhaps, the money that bought the yacht was made in the corporate sector, perhaps at the expense of a family life, and as a result the large ships ignoring him was doubly crushing - the realization that he is fundamentally unimportant to those he gave his best years.

Is that inferring too much? Perhaps. Still, the other interesting thing to me is how Chandor structures the end, with Our Man having to destroy the tools and materials which he's been using to try and survive in order to attract his rescuers. It's a nice way to represent a self-reliant man having to rely on others, although it's not something he's naturally able to do - hence the desperation to the point of giving up.

At any rate, it's nicely done. Somewhat backloaded, but not as obviously so.


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