One man encounters a wave of obstacles.
This appears to be a film where Robert Redford is hell-bent on getting, and staying, wet. Opening titles inform us he is a man estranged from his family, exploring the Indian Ocean on a sailboat and 17,000 nautical miles from the Sumatran straits. And then disaster hits. More than once.
It’s certainly not a film for the easily exasperated. Or with a short attention span. Redford awakes in his boat to a foot of water threatening the rest of his peaceful journey. A cast off piece of cargo leaking shoes has severely dented ‘Virginia Jean’ and left him gluing his boat back together and pumping out the water. Such scenes were of a particularly upsetting nature to me having recently experienced great amounts of flooding in Surrey.
Mere moments away from regaining his sailing stride, a brutal storm hits and poor Redford is rained upon and then thrown briefly overboard. At the ripe old age of 76, one can’t help but think this was a particularly taxing shoot for the veteran actor. He is the sole focus of the film; dominating the entire screen time and requiring sparse dialogue – action is the name of the game.
After the storm wreaks irreparable damage to his boat, Redford is forced into a dingy. At approximately half-way through the film, a repetitive element to the narrative makes itself apparent. The lifeboat springs a leak and another storm causes life-threatening damage. I was close to shouting ‘come on already’ aloud in the cinema. And whilst this could be mistaken for laziness, rather it seems to evoke the inimitable, unforgiving and unfathomable dangers of the ocean. The sea just doesn’t damn well care that you might have been through this before.
Director J.C. Chandor, whom previously helmed ‘Margin Call’, has proved he can deliver a tightly-woven and thrilling film. Here he moves away from financial crises and power suits, but still demonstrates assurance and thought in depicting a vast and empty seascape. His cinematography is pared back, switching elegantly between high angle shots, as well as underwater ones that emphasise Redford’s boat as a mere dot dwarfed by vast and tempestuous surroundings. The depiction of sunrises and sunsets with each passing day that Redford is able to survive could very well rival ‘Life of Pi’ in their breathtaking beauty. Chandor, alongside the sound crew, create a film of elegiac and ambient detail. Every creak, whistle and groan is amplified to the extent you never feel dialogue is required. Moreover, the array of shots and pacing of the film mean that despite an unchanging setting, you never know what to expect. It’s gripping stuff.
Holding the film together, as well as his boat, is the delightful Robert Redford. Unlike the situation, he’s easy to watch. You feel safe in his company, trusting that he’ll deliver an honest, subtle and emotive performance. But this isn’t so much a performance, as a complete embodiment of character. It’s unfussy, naturalistic and thoroughly praise-worthy. He remains admirably calm throughout most of the tribulations, so when on the verge of tears he yells ‘Fuck’, you know he’s in trouble. There’s a moment when he’s curled up, or perhaps crumpled, within the dingy, the darkness rolling in, that if the credits were to roll you would feel distraught. Utterly bereft even. Over 1000 people died in the sinking of the Titanic, but this is one man you are willing to stay alive; such is the power of Redford.
There are bug-bear moments and slight flaws in consistency – the fact Redford has access to completely dry and uncreased paper in his lifeboat to write a letter to his family hints at a lapse into contrivance, and the soundtrack felt a tad overbearing. At one point deep and ominous drumming music alluded to possible shark attack – which then reoccurred with the appearance of sharks – whilst at Redford’s moment of peaceful resignation, the non-diegetic music became painfully melodramatic.
But these are small flaws in otherwise bravura filmmaking. It’s testament to the changing nature of film – with ‘Gravity’ being another example – that studios, actors, directors, e.t.c. feel able to make these slow-burning, unfurling and narratively- diverse pieces of cinema. And like ‘All is Lost’, still hold and very much reward, our attention.
VERDICT: A distressing, experimental, measured and fascinating film. Just as Redford’s fate is at the hands of the ocean, for an 1hour and 40mins you are utterly at the hands of this narrative. Soak it up.