One of the many reasons The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of my favorite films is the opening. There is no dialogue. It’s a lesson in how much can be said without words and the skill of a talented director. J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The movie not only has a single actor, but it refuses to even let him have the solace of talking to himself. He is a man of action in a fight for his life against the elements, and there’s no time to walk us through thought processes or the finer points of sailing. There’s only the old man, the sea, and the present.
An unnamed character, who’s listed in the credits only as “Our Man” (Robert Redford), is in the Sumatran Straits, 1,700 nautical miles from shore. The movie opens with the man providing a voice over apologizing to unknown persons. We then cut back eight days, and see his small ship, the Virginia Jean, has sprung a leak after being struck by a wayward shipping container. What begins as an attempt to fix the leak eventually escalates to a fight for survival as a brutal storm rains down upon his vessel.
Chandor expertly balances the drama of his story with a solemn, matter-of-fact procedure of the man trying to save his ship. The director emphasizes the isolation of the man by ignoring the audience to the point where we’re left to wonder why anyone wouldn’t try to at least keep him or herself comforted by vocalizing their thoughts. Instead, we get a better sense of the man through his silence and withdrawn attitude. He knows how to patch up the boat, manage the rigging, etc. His confidence gives us comfort even though the elements threaten to kill him.
The movie can be an awkward balancing act as the man is tested time and time again. His calm, controlled demeanor indicates that he can handle almost anything up to and including the wrath of a brutal thunderstorm. It’s not necessarily a story of “man vs. nature” because his troubles don’t begin with the storm. They begin with something man-made damaging his ship. If there is an “antagonist”, it’s loneliness, and it’s a loneliness of his own making. We just don’t really feel that loneliness to deeply because we’re too busy thinking, “WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THIS? STAY ON SWEET LAND.”
There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and the man is almost a cipher. The character consciously loses himself to become “one with nature” but without the personality. There’s no light in his eyes, and rarely a clear facial expression. We get some frustrated sighs, and eventually there’s a human escalation to where we finally see some recognizable humanity. Other than some minor visual cues, the man is not an individual. That’s a tough role for Redford, and perhaps any actor, to play. The story calls for the man to barely peek out from behind his pragmatism, and Redford refuses to give us even a flicker in the man’s eyes.
The connection comes from Chandor throwing himself entirely into telling his story with the noise of nature and the silence of solitude. It’s a unique experience that turns its attention to the “how” of survival rather than a specific “why” featured in solo survival pictures like Gravity, Cast Away, and A Cry in the Wild. The emotional impact of the survival in All Is Lost is more tenuous. There’s more to life than just surviving, and All Is Lost is an admirable exploration to find that “more” when it’s not other people.