I’ve read a few different interpretations of J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost,” a lot of them about the possible metaphorical implications of this guy (Robert Redford) stranded at sea on a shipwreck for an hour and a half. To be honest, I don’t know which theory I believe, but to some extent it doesn’t matter. Whatever you take from it, “All is Lost” is a feat of precision filmmaking with a very narrow focus.
There is no real dialogue. Most of the film is close, tight shots on the deck or in the cabin of the main, unnamed character’s yacht. There is no real exposition or personal history given. Everything the audience knows it learns from each subsequent frame. All of these elements could understandably be taken as evidence that the film ought to be a) boring, b) sickeningly self-important, or c) both, but instead, the film succeeds because it knows exactly what its goals are. It maintains a gripping pace despite eliminating all traditional storytelling markers, and Redford’s performance gives the film emotional texture and ambiguity without any speech.
“All is Lost” is a film of process, much like the motel sequences from “No Country for Old Men.” Chandor spends a lot of time on the infinite tasks that Redford must perform to try and salvage his busted boat, understanding the intimacy involved in these mechanical actions. We watch as Redford determines which items to keep with him, as he tries to repair the hull of his ship and his radio, as he decides he needs a quick shave in his flooded cabin (?). We learn through watching him deal with the specifics of a traumatic set of circumstances.
It speaks about humanity and its relationship with an indifferent nature through its devotion to a few, specific elements. “All is Lost” offers an alternative to the stereotypical blockbuster action movie that is often more thrilling, and more troubling, in its quiet.