All is Lost

Despite appearances, All is Lost is one of the really bold films in this year’s Telluride slate. A story about survival at sea, it has perhaps three lines of dialogue. Only one person – the nameless protagonist, played by Robert Redford – ever appears on screen.  The screenplay provides precisely one piece of explicit context:  a brief letter from its protagonist (Robert Redford) to unspecified family, read in voiceover at the beginning of the film. Beyond that, we are told nothing about who this man is or what he is doing alone in a yacht on the Indian Ocean.

What follows is one of the most organic-feeling thrillers I’ve ever seen. The man wakes up to find that a rogue shipping container has punctured a hole in his yacht. The boat is filling with water. The radio appears to be waterlogged. The man goes about patching the hole and pumping the water out of the boat. Then a storm hits. He puts on raingear and tries to keep the boat from sinking. He gets tossed overboard and climbs back in. The boat flips over and then right side up again. Things start to look more desperate. Eventually, the man drags out a yellow bag that says “LIFE RAFT” on it in big red letters.

There are no explanations. We know things are bad because the radio doesn’t work, and because the man pulls out a book called “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen” and starts browsing. The film does not tell the story of his life. There is not even a helpful shot of a family photo. Apart from the letter, which tells us little, everything we know comes from context clues: he wears what appears to be a wedding ring on his right hand, and an ornate jade stone ring on his left. He is knowledgeable and resourceful, but not a survival expert; at one point he unpacks a celestial navigation kit that was clearly given to him as a quasi-novelty gift, and which he had never opened. His boat is named the Virginia Jean and hails from Portland. Before the storm descends upon him, he takes the time to shave.

This is so vastly preferable to bringing in gauzy flashbacks of his wife or daughter or whatever, or providing some hacky made-up incident or regret from his past that gives him the will to live. We can intuit all that stuff, and get a sense of the man from the way he behaves. All the drama we need is in the moment, and that’s where the movie stays. As a pure survival thriller, All is Lost is riveting, technically ingenious and steeped in believable detail. The frustration and desperation of the last half hour are all-encompassing and existential.

All is Lost has so much to teach Hollywood. Good screenwriting is not pat explanations and impeccable character arcs set forth step-by-step for the audience. Ambiguity is its own dramatic tool. We don’t even know the protagonist’s name; never meet his family; have no idea what he does for a living or how he came to be here. The absence of that stuff strips the film bare and amplifies its essence. Our minds fill in the blanks.

-- Eugene Novikov

allislost
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One Comment

  1. Monkey Boy Fantastic says:

    This review is listed as a “negative” one on Rotten Tomatoes. Strangeness.

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