J.C. Chandor follows up 2011’s talky but tense Margin Call with polar opposite All Is Lost (2013), a near-silent survival procedural that celebrates humanity’s psychological and physical resilience when faced with insurmountable odds. Stranded 1,700 miles off the Sumatran Straits after colliding with a misplaced shipping container, a nameless man (Robert Redford) finds himself caught in a futile battle with the elements. Damaged electrical equipment, a hole in the ship’s hull and tropical storms are just a few of the challenges this anonymous seafarer must overcome, testing both his nautical aptitude and sheer endurance.
After the intelligent bravura of Margin Call, the limited narrative and restrictive confines of All Is Lost’s maritime milieu could be seen as Chandor undertaking a self-imposed challenge in minimalist filmmaking. Whilst this one-man survival epic may have replaced the testosterone-pumped uproar of his debut feature with a more sober-minded consideration of the world, there remains an almighty argument at the heart of this sophomore offering. Engaged in an ongoing quarrel with the belligerent elements, insults and insinuations are replaced with unyielding tempests and roaring waves. Above the cacophony of the sea’s relentless profanity, Redford’s doomed boatman struggles doggedly to make himself heard.
Thrusting the audience under the briny depths of the Indian Ocean before momentarily letting them surface for air, All Is Lost is an irrefutably immersive experience. Achieved principally through old-fashioned effects (with CGI used sparingly), Chandor showcases his technical proficiency, with the film’s chaotic rhythm gracefully oscillating between nervous tension and quiet contemplation. Some of the drama’s strongest moments are when we observe our silent protagonist contemplate his next move, calculating the odds and, in a calm and collected manner, approaching the problem at hand with composed dexterity.
Whilst there may be the nagging doubt that this is purely a flamboyant exercise in concept execution, Redford’s nuanced central performance and the film’s shrewdly sculpted dramatics are so instinctively aligned that the audience soon becomes utterly enthralled, equipped to see past the novelty and focus exclusively on the experience they’re enduring. A nerve-wracking reimagining of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, All Is Lost’s grandiose portrait of honour in struggle is a lucid and indomitable celebration of the endurance of the human spirit that makes for one hell of a ride.