a Personal Matter:
Robert Redford in All is Lost
By Nicholas Pierce
We then meet Redford (named simply “Our Man” in the closing credits) eight days earlier, at the moment his sailboat, The Virginia Jean, collides with the container. Shaken from sleep by the sharp sound of cracking wood and a torrent of water rushing over The Virginia’s wooden floors, he jolts out of bed and trudges through a flotsam of sneakers, appliances, and sailing paraphernalia to inspect the damage. The damage is severe. A corner of the shipping container juts through the hull of his boat. Here we are introduced to one of Our Man’s defining characteristics: save for a single, late-in-the-game outburst, he doesn’t panic. Rather, he meets each situation head-on, accepting the circumstances for what they are. ‘Okay,’ Redford’s aged face seems to express. ‘What’s next?’
The similarities between the character and actor in All is Lost are unmistakable: as Our Man, Redford is essentially playing himself. That’s not to say the performance is underwhelming—far from it, in fact. While many of Redford’s contemporaries star in nostalgic romps (I’m thinking of upcoming films like Last Vegas and Grown Ups 2), oftentimes parodying the roles that made them famous, Redford instead embraces his age, portraying Our Man as an old but capable seafarer with no superpowers, only a working mind on which to rely.
As with another superb tale of survival from this year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity—in which Sandra Bullock’s stranded astronaut evades a revolving cloud of debris, seemingly emblematic of the waves of depression she’s suffered since her daughter’s abrupt passing—director J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost can be read as an extended metaphor for living in the face of death. Unlike Gravity, however, All is Lost provides us with no backstory. Anything a viewer is to know about Our Man must be gleaned from environmental details—a wedding band informs us that Our Man is married or possibly recently bereaved; the opulence of his boat suggests he’s somewhat wealthy; the name of his boat could be derived from his wife, or another loved one, or neither. The ambiguity is purposeful and important. Chandor and Redford have crafted Our Man as a blank slate upon which each viewer can cast his or her own history, individually defining the edges of Our Man's character. Why? Because all of us will face death at some point. Our Man is teaching us how.
The way that Chandor frames the shipping container at the start of the film—it appears almost black in the low light, eliciting its portentousness—suggests a kind of gravestone, marking not Our Man’s death but his transition into an existence in which death has an immediacy and tactility. Chandor repeatedly shows Our Man waking—after the accident, after a concussion he receives during a storm, and numerous times on the raft he boards once The Virginia has capsized—as though he were undergoing a series of epiphanies, the reality of his situation becoming clearer and clearer.
Once Our Man is on the raft, Chandor spends a great deal of time focusing on the marine life that circles but feet below him. We see a tiny, jelly-fish-like creature, then a school of fish, then sharks. But none of these creatures (except the shark that spoils Our Man’s fishing attempt) interact with Our Man. They are indifferent to his plight, in much the same way that the cargo ships, which later pass outrageously close to Our Man’s raft and fail to notice his flares and calls for help, are indifferent. To see Redford’s sun-beat form contrasted with that of a staggeringly immense cargo ship (an image reminiscent of certain scenes from Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips) reminds one that tragedy is very often a personal matter, affecting only a select few who, by the choice or ignorance of others, are given little to no aid.
At one point late in the film, Our Man tears a page from his notebook and pens a short letter. Upon finishing, he seals the letter in a glass jar, stands and prepares to throw. Then, with a sigh, he approaches the edge of his slowly deflating life raft and drops the jar into the water, understanding that regardless of how much effort he puts into the throw, the jar will still end up drifting, like him, through a vast ocean—that the message contained within, in all likelihood, will never reach its intended recipient. One could say this is true of any creative work, Chandor’s film included. To put into words the struggles of your life and then to send those words out into the world in hopes that they might somehow connect with another human being—that takes courage. All is Lost is a film about courage.