All Is Lost, film review: Five stars for stunning new Robert Redford movie

5.00

J C Chandor’s brilliant film starring Robert Redford fulfills all the criteria of new mini-genre of survival stories

Existential survival stories are the new fad in cinema. Their appeal lies in their pared-down quality. After too many bloated comic-book franchises, it is refreshing to encounter lean, focused storytelling that pits individuals against the elements rather than against pantomime-style villains.

Another attraction is the “What would you do?” question that such films ask of their viewers. There is a macabre fascination in trying to work out whether we would take the same steps as the beleaguered protagonists to stave off disaster. Then, there is the metaphorical side. These films aren’t just about yachtsmen trying to work out which knots to tie to keep their vessels afloat, or climbers defying injury, or astronauts trying to get back to Earth. Their themes are far bigger than that.

J C Chandor’s brilliant All Is Lost fulfills all the criteria of this new mini-genre. The cast consists of Robert Redford... and nobody else at all. Redford says next to nothing beyond briefly yelling for help, swearing once and trying forlornly to issue an SOS message. We hear him in voiceover reading the words of the grim letter he is writing to his family about his plight, and then we flash back in time eight days to the freak accident with a metal container that so damaged his yacht. He is alone somewhere on the Indian Ocean, 1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits.

What makes the film so utterly absorbing to watch is the common sense and pragmatism with which the sailor reacts to his situation. When the boat begins to leak, he plugs the leak. When his radio and navigation equipment are soaked, he tries to steer with a sextant. He conserves food and energy.

Chandor is fascinated by the minutiae of the yachtsman’s fight for survival: the amount he eats, his painstaking efforts to collect water, his forlorn attempts at fishing. The yachtsman is as precise as he can be in his actions, because he knows that the tiniest mistake will be fatal. We see him climbing up the mast. As the weather worsens, he even takes the time to shave. He drinks most of a bottle of rum. He stays busy both because he needs to and because it’s his only way of staving off despair.

All Is Lost has some aspects of an action movie or even a horror picture. There are juddering storm sequences in which the yacht is turned upside down. At one stage, he is even knocked out and gashes his head. The vessel, on which his survival depends, seems to be turning against him, Amityville-style.

Redford’s performance is credible, subtle and, ultimately, very moving. He clearly knows his way round a boat. Early on, he shows little emotion. He has too much to do to risk self-pity. Gradually, as his physical state worsens, his desperation becomes more obvious. Like a character in a Samuel Beckett absurdist play, he forces himself to go on, even as his hopes of survival diminish. The only information about his life beyond the boat comes in the letter he reads in which he expresses his feeling of failure and his determination to “fight to the end”. We don’t know why he embarked on his solo journey or anything about his family. This must have been a feat of endurance for an actor in his late 70s, but we never have the feeling that we are watching the travails of an old man. Redford’s character here is robust and stubborn.

For all its turbulence, All Is Lost is a very graceful film. There is a beguiling, dreamlike rhythm to the storytelling. Chandor throws in high angle shots which show Redford’s boat as a tiny little dot on a vast expanse of water. There are beautiful sunsets and cloudscapes as well as underwater sequences which show the marine life alongside Redford’s amoeba-shaped dinghy. The sound editing is remarkably detailed and does much of the work that dialogue would do in a more conventional film. Every creak of the boat or hiss of the wind is registered. Alex Ebert’s ambient, haunting music gives the film an elegiac feel.

The action of the film takes place over eight or nine days, but we have little sense of how much time is passing – only that the weather is constantly changing and that we are moving between night and day.

Just occasionally, we notice the artifice. Although the sailor is frequently soaked, he never seems to be feeling the cold. Certain scenes look as if they were filmed in a water tank rather than on the open sea. Even so, Chandor is remarkably successful in giving us a sense of the sailor’s complete isolation.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock’s astronaut is engaged in a similar fight for survival, has been a huge box-office hit. Audiences were so engrossed in her battle to stay alive that they didn’t worry about the lack of dialogue and the fact that the cast was so small. All Is Lost is even more pared down and experimental – and it doesn’t have the same eye-popping special effects. In its way, though, this is just as strong a piece of film-making. It is far more than simply a nautical yarn about human endurance in extreme circumstances. Chandor brings a mystery, transcendent quality and sense of absurdism to his storytelling that you simply won’t find in any conventional action movie.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'