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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker