Our Man (Robert Redford) awakes to a loud crunch and the sound of water rushing in. His yacht has run into a Maersk container adrift at sea, puncturing the hull. There is an old screenwriting adage that says, “Get in late, get out early.” Writer/director J.C. Chandor takes that advice in spades, completely parsing any exposition, prologue, back story, even dialog. We don’t know whom this man is, why he is here, or what he hopes to accomplish, but we know that he now has a problem. Nothing motivates a character quite like a problem.
Watch All Is Lost and you will watch a man lost at sea, doing everything he can to survive. I say “watch” because the act of watching is the most important part of this movie. Save for ten or so lines at the very beginning of the movie (read in voice over), a couple of distress calls on the radio, and one very timely exasperation, Redford acts without dialog. This makes the movie sound like an academic exploration into “less is more”, or even a gimmick (“Did you guys see the new silent boat picture?”). Some may read the movie that way, and that is fine-it’s their prerogative, but they are missing the best part. The lack of dialog only heightens the power of the moving image, showing us just how expressive the form can be. Take for example the jewelry that Our Man wears: on his left hand a wedding band, on his right, a class ring. Was it a happy marriage? Did she die? Did she leave him for someone else? Did he leave her? Was there a fight? Is that why he is out here all alone? Is she waiting for him to return? What about their kids? The class ring, is it a high school ring? Where did he go to school? Were those the best years of his life? Must have been if he is still wearing it some sixty years later. The significance these two tiny little objects can take on when there are no words to distract us.
The interpretations do not stop there. I know nothing about sailing, so I have no clue if the decisions that Our Man made were good decisions or bad decisions. In another movie with two characters, I would be informed through the dialog: “We need to lash the sails before the winds pick up” or “Make sure you keep the boat leaning to the port side, or we are done for.” If the characters lash the sails and survive the storm, I understand that they know what they are doing, and that they survived because of that knowledge. If the boat dips to the starboard side and sinks, I know that they died due to user error. The dialog guides my understanding of the images. Without that dialog, I am left to decide for myself. After Our Man discovers the breach in the hull, he craftily and methodically repairs it, leading me to believe that he knows what he is doing. But, it is not the hull in the boat that dooms him, it is the storm that tosses his boat about. Prior to the storm (one of the best set-pieces I’ve seen this year) there is a wide shot that shows him steering the boat, on his left is a storm and clear blue skies to the right. Does he steer the boat into the storm because he has to, because he thinks the ship will hold, or because that is just where the current is taking him? Is the consequence of his action due to inevitability, hubris, or chance? All Is Lost functions like a Rorschach Test, each viewer will see something different. Your interpretation of the events and ending will depend on what you bring with you into the theater. By removing dialog, Chandor empowers the audience in a way that most movies do not. What you put into the movie will be returned to you: put in a little, you will get back a little, put in a lot, you will get back a lot.
Chandor’s debut, Margin Call (2011), earned him an Oscar nomination and a good deal of critical attention. Set on the eve of the financial collapse, Margin Call featured an impressive ensemble and overlapping dialog that brought to mind Howard Hawks and Robert Altman. A far cry from All Is Lost, apparently Chandor can do it all. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have Robert Redford as your guy. 2013 has seen four movies where characters are isolated or stranded: Tom Cruise had to clean up a post-apocalyptic Earth in Oblivion, Jaden Smith battled odd beasts in After Earth, Sandra Bullock was left looking for oxygen and a way home in Gravity, and now Redford is all alone on the high seas. Of all these actors, I much prefer the company of The Sundance Kid (although Bullock gave an excellent performance). Chandor must have known that his movie would sink or swim based on the performance of his man, and I can only imagine the smile that split his face when Redford gave him the thumbs up. Robert Redford is an actor who makes every movie he is in better. In All Is Lost, he makes it a work of pure cinema.