American director J.C. Chandor first made a name for himself with 2011 talkathon Margin Call, which strove to present the 07-08 financial crisis to us as if we were, “a small child, or a golden retriever”. His follow-up film, All Is Lost (2013) – screening out of competition at this year’s Cannes – has almost no dialogue whatsoever. There is a brief monologue (that serves as a prologue) and a couple of expletives, but Sorkin territory this isn’t. Robert Redford plays an unnamed solo yachtsman who wakes up one morning to find that his vessel has run into a shipping container; the hull breached and water leaking into his cabin.
Without fuss, Redford’s seafarer sets about manoeuvring away from the peril before then repairing his hull. This is made difficult by the fact that he is without electricity – cut off from the outside world, unable to navigate via satellite or even using the mechanical pump – and is now utterly reliant on his own skill and ingenuity. The man goes about the business of survival without panic or histrionics, and is exactly the kind of individual you would want to be in predicament with (but probably wouldn’t be). Chandor’s film is at once a bold experiment and a marvellously old-fashioned sea yarn, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat and/or John Sturges’ The Old Man and the Sea (1958).
All Is Lost is classic adventure cinema stripped down to Jack London levels of austerity – the cinematic equivalent of Hemingway’s spare prose. The pleasure of watching Redford’s calm, understated persona – a character who just ‘does’ things – is a genuine joy to behold, even as we fear for his safety. He never does anything stupid, and though he allows himself exactly one glass of whisky as a treat, there’s no spectacular breakdown, no praying and no weeping. His emotional restraint, as things go from desperate to downright deadly, is intensely moving and one of Redford’s trump cards.
Chandor’s latest is a film about stoic heroism, and yet Redford is never given the ‘hero’ mantle. Everything he does is utterly credible. He moves slowly, with an old man’s deliberation, his energy is easily exhausted and he can’t perform the energetic, youth-dependent feats of his Sundance Kid heyday. Chandor resists any impulse to turn his magnificent second feature into allegory, and never leavens the man’s isolation with some sort of proxy (Castaway’s inanimate ‘Wilson’, for instance). And yet in its simplicity, All Is Lost achieves a profound power; in its smallness, something epic emerges, as immense and vast as the tumbling ocean itself.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.