Thursday, November 14, 2013

All Wet: J.C. Chandor's All is Lost

Scale in movies can be a funny thing. The writer-director J. C. Chandor’s first feature, the 2011 Margin Call, was mostly set in Manhattan, featured a lot of good actors, and had an important, charged subject: the amoral, cutthroat capitalist culture that set the stage for the global economic meltdown. It felt like a small, intimate movie, though, probably because it was mostly talk and lacked serious star power. Chandor’s new movie, All Is Lost, has a single, nameless character, who, after a brief introductory voice-over that sets a solemn, doomy tone, speaks only a very few words in the course of the film, words like “Help!” and “Fuuuuck!!”. But because this character – “Our Man,” he’s called in the closing credits – is out on the high seas and is played by the iconic movie star Robert Redford (at whose Sundance Film Festival Margin Call premiered), All Is Lost has an epic feel to it. For 100 minutes, you’re focused on Redford’s efforts to stay alive after his sailboat is damaged, and after he’s finally forced to abandon it in favor of an inflatable life raft. The movie tells you nothing about “Our Man;” even his voice-over reveals only that he tried “to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right,” and that he believes he failed, though he would appreciate being awarded points for the effort. Most of the reviews of this phenomenally well-reviewed picture take the position that it doesn’t matter who this man is, though it must help a lot of people to care about him that he’s the 77-year-old Sundance Kid.

All Is Lost begins with Redford waking from a nap to discover that his boat has been damaged in a collision with a runaway shipping container that is floating through the ocean, spilling running shoes into nature’s watery bounty. He separates his boat from the container, repairs the hole that’s been knocked in its side, and tries to repair the damage that’s been done to the communications system. The situation escalates when he’s caught in a storm and the boat is further damaged and flooded. For much of the movie, the action, and also the character development, consists of observing Redford’s responses to the chaos that’s steadily engulfing him, which I guess make him a Hemingwayesque existential hero. Being a fiction writer,  that Hemingway was rather better equipped to make his heroes’ actions – not just what they were doing, but why –comprehensible to the ignorant layman.

I would be interested to know how many of this movie’s rapturous admirers know how to pilot a sailboat. I’ve never set foot on one, and while that’s not Chandor’s fault, I think it may not entirely be my fault that my appreciation of Our Man’s heroic struggle is complicated by my inability to tell whether he’s an incompetent bumbler of someone who’s doing his very best in tough circumstances. When he takes what seems like an unconscionable amount of time applying a couple of tiny Band-Aids to a gash in his forehead while he’s in the hold of a boat that is audibly breaking apart, is he meant to be an idiot, is he in shock or does he know something I don’t about the slow process of a boat disintegrating and the vital important of partially covering a cut when you’re about to be floating in open seas for a few days? I can’t tell, and I’m not sure how I could tell. I’m also not sure why so many people don’t think it makes any difference, but Our Man’s competence level and mental state are concrete issues, and All Is Lost is, like recent Terrence Malick (The Tree of LifeTo the Wonder), a movie that clearly affects a great number of people on a semi-religious level.

Robert Redford and J.C. Chandor

Another constant theme in the glowing reviews has been that Redford gives the performance of his career. That could be. Redford, who showed a lot of pepper and tension early in his career, in his TV appearances and his supporting roles in movies such as Inside Daisy Clover, traded in acting for being an icon almost as soon as he became a star. As he’s grown older, his career has increasingly been hampered by his inability to figure how what, as an icon, he’s supposed to represent (aside from his off-screen image as a good liberal who cares about the outdoors and rough-hewn granola cinema). Maybe he was a little late to get the memo that he was no longer the most gorgeous guy in the room. (In a couple of movies, including A River Runs Through It, which he directed, he seemed to be publicly anointing Brad Pitt as the new version of him, a compliment that cuts both ways.)

This could be his dream role, in the same (bad) way that Rain Man was Dustin Hoffman’s dream role. For Hoffman, playing an autistic man in a prestige commercial tearjerker meant doing showy little acting tricks every minute he was onscreen, and barely noticing if anyone was there. Redford isn’t the technician that Hoffman is, but he stopped connecting with other performers a long time ago, which means that the “difficult” nature of this role is a lucky break for him. He looks right here – as he didn’t in some of the star vehicles that overtaxed his vaguely defined star image by treating him as the new Bogart or the new Gary Cooper – and he holds the camera every step of the way. But his minimalist acting style has sometimes shut out possibilities in his movies’ scripts that he couldn’t be bothered with, and here, it doesn’t add anything special to Chandor’s blank slate of a screenplay.

On two separate occasions, enormous ships loaded down with cargo pass Our Man by as he desperately, impotently tries to signal them. On some level, All Is Lost is probably a metaphor for the same things that Margin Call was about: the way that global capitalism has gotten so completely out of hand that it shows nothing but indifference to the little people who are being swamped in its wake. It doesn’t even know they’re right there, holding signal flares and yelling for help. The fact that some critics who were underwhelmed by the absorbing, well-acted Margin Call are crazy about this movie may just prove that a lot of people are more impressed with movies that work on a metaphorical level when there’s not much in the way of a story of characters to distract you from the metaphor itself.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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