Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

15 November 2013

Man vs. Ocean Part 4

There have been a bunch of man vs. ocean movies lately: Life of Pi, Kon-Tiki, The Deep. And now comes J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, about a man on a small yacht (39 feet, says the Wikipedia page) who accidentally loses power and begins to take on water after crashing into an abandoned shipping container (apparently filled with children's shoes). From there our man is alone in the ocean with little hope of rescue.

Mr. Redford as Our Man
All Is Lost is different from the other movies I mentioned – and indeed unique for this year – in that it has only one character. Robert Redford anchors the movie: is its only character, its only voice. And being alone in the ocean trying to survive he says very little. The fact that he is the only character means we know almost nothing about him.

Who is this man?
Why is he alone?

Who was his family?
To whom would he return?
What does he do for a living?
How long has he been sailing?
What is he doing in the Indian Ocean?

When he writes a letter of goodbye, to whom is he writing?
For what is he apologizing?

In this way, All Is Lost is a mystery as much as it is an adventure story. Because we know nothing about our man, we search his face, his possessions, his every action for answers. Our man, though, is a survivor. That's what he is. Chandor doesn't give us backstory. If our man thinks about his life, his regrets, his loves, we know nothing of it. We see only his face and the things that he does to try to stay afloat, alive, and healthy.

If this is valuable as a kind of pure, ascetic filmmaking (and I think it is), it has its drawbacks, too. The reason I liked Kon-Tiki is because it is about teamwork and sticking it out and dealing with other people in confined spaces. One of the reasons I loved The Deep so much, is that it is a meditation on death and on managing things of which we do not know we are capable. The Deep is also fundamentally about losing other people, about coping with that loss, about getting back to something.  

All Is Lost is about staying alive and nothing else, survival tout court. As I say, this is an awesome, unique way of approaching such a story, but I couldn't identify with our man as much as I would've liked. I wanted to know what he was thinking about. I wanted to be alone with him, the way I was alone with Sandra Bullock in Gravity, the way I was alone with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in The Deep.

I will say that I like this J.C. Chandor's stuff. I liked Margin Call and I liked this. He has a kind of cinematic austerity and clarity that I really enjoy. I look forward to his next picture.