NEVER GIVE UP.
While J.C. Chandor was commuting to New York City during the editing period of his first film, Margin Call (2011), he was watching the boatyards and was struck by a feeling of waste and absurdity. A couple of hundred years ago, we relied on boats to explore the world and now most of us have very little practical use for them. That was how Chandor started thinking about the prospect of a film with just one character, a person who is lost at sea at a time when that shouldn’t even be possible anymore.
Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, an old man (Robert Redford) is writing a farewell letter, ending it with the words “All is lost”. The story then takes us eight days back when his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, collides with a drifting shipping container full of sneakers. The man was asleep when it happened and realizes that he has his hands full. After patching up the big hole in the hull that the container caused and pumped all the water out of the cabin, he notices that the radio and other communications systems have been damaged. A tropical storm is coming fast and the man prepares for this very physical challenge…
What’s needed is a star
The part of “Our Man” couldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, be played by just anybody. This is a case when a movie star that audiences love and can relate to as a common person must be hired. Chandor realized this and as he was promoting Margin Call during the 2011 Sundance festival, he thought of how intriguing it would be to have the festival’s iconic leader, Robert Redford, play the part. But that’s not all. This movie would have virtually no dialogue and wouldn’t it be exciting to see this movie star at work without his famous voice? To his great surprise, Redford found the project a worthy challenge for him and must have considered Margin Call a good sign of this rookie filmmaker’s natural instincts. Watching a person who says nothing for an hour and fortyfive minutes may sound dull, but Redford commands the screen throughout. He makes us root for him and his performance becomes even more impressive when you learn that he did most stunts himself in spite of his age. This is hard work, and it shows. At a crucial point in the film, when Murphy’s law hits Redford especially hard, he lets out the most intense, growling “fuck” you’ll ever hear – and boy, do we feel his pain. Most of the film was shot in the same huge tank where Titanic (1997) was filmed, but there’s nothing here that feels like it’s fake. Watching the old man handle every crisis, from the initial collision to the storm and his subsequent struggles, is quite the nail-biter, but it also also provides moments of sadness and beauty, subtly reinforced by the emotional music of Alex Ebert (whose day job is lead singer in the indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros). It’s a traditional battle between man and sea, and Chandor’s feeling of waste is ever-present. We don’t know why the old man is sailing on his own, but the situation he finds himself in is one he has chosen, fully aware of the dangers. Still, as in Cast Away (2000), it’s fascinating to watch one person’s struggle against the elements. Apart from the horrors, there’s something appealing about it too, the isolation from all the modern security blankets we’ve created.
Redford has always dared to go out on a limb, remain creative and take risks. We don’t expect that kind of effort from many other huge stars his age or slightly younger. But considering the quality of Chandor’s first two films, we certainly hope he’s still this exciting when he turns 77.
All is Lost 2013-U.S. 106 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, Teddy Schwarzman. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Cinematography: Frank G. DeMarco. Music: Alex Ebert. Cast: Robert Redford (Our Man).
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Zachary Quinto.
Golden Globe: Best Original Score.
Last word: “[Redford] had just finished color correcting [‘The Company You Keep’], when you see your own face over and over again at the end of a shoot, and he was ready to totally hand himself over to a new experience where he never asked a question about the technical – he just isolated himself as an actor in the bubble environments that we were creating. He said a couple of times that it brought him back to his roots. His life had gotten so complicated supporting all the endeavors he takes on that he turned off his cell phone, his personal secretary is the only person who knew where he was practically, and he came for two and a half months down to Mexico and just kind of allowed himself to go on this journey.” (Chandor, Huffington Post)