Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All is Lost (2013)

Take any course on film analysis (or, hell, even an "Intro to Film"-style class) and you'll learn that there are certain tenants to narrative filmmaking that need to be observed. For a narrative to move through a three-act, linear structure, there must be a conflict. Conflict also necessitates character development, in which the character undergoes a change from the beginning to the end. Characters can be better understood by audiences - and therefore are more relatable - by providing backstory. And the most important rule, especially in film: show, don't tell.

All is Lost is, like the films of the French New Wave in the 1960s, a complete subversion of these rules.  Or, rather, it's the ultimate distillation of "show, don't tell." The film begins aboard a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, 1700 miles from the nearest shore, as an unnamed man (Robert Redford) - listed as "Our Man" in the closing credits - discovers that his vessel has collided with an adrift shipping container, puncturing the hull. From there, we see him struggle to stay afloat, both literally and metaphorically.


What's striking about Our Man is what we don't know: he doesn't have a name, isn't given a backstory, or given any kind of context for why he's here. The "character development" he undergoes is really just a broadening of what we understand about him, and that's mostly that he's doing his best in a very difficult situation. Redford is absolutely riveting in this role, and not just because he is literally the only person ever seen onscreen. Mark Harris (by way of the late Roger Ebert) recently posited that Redford's best performances tend to be as characters who are, essentially, Redford himself. The film makes good use of this, allowing us only to identify this man as Redford, which gives the audience more of a stake in the proceedings; I imagine that using an unknown actor wouldn't have been nearly as effective. Even more remarkable is how Redford plays Our Man's growing desperation: at most, there are maybe 15 lines of dialogue in the entire film, most of which are in the film's opening narration. With the exception of one notable expletive, Redford's mounting frustrations come from his increasingly ill-considered actions. We can tell that Our Man has some experience as a sailor, but he's not experienced enough to handle the situations he's been thrown in; as a result, the film builds with him acting more and more out of desperation than out of strategic planning. It's a fascinating character study of a character that we barely get to know.

Instead of giving the audience any bearings on what's happened up to this point, writer/director J.C. Chandor maroons us in the middle of the story, with nothing else to do but see what happens. Chandor's accomplishment here is especially consider that the filmmaker's only previous feature was 2011's Margin Call, a starry, talky ensemble piece about a fictional bank at the beginning of the Great Recession. Chandor wisely avoids overdramatizing any moment, allowing for sweeping shots of Redford alone against a sea that seems to be endless. This film marks the moment when everyone should take note: he is a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, given the risks he's willing to take.

If there is any fault in this film, it's that the score is at times too overbearing, forcing emotions that would have been better served with subtlety (Gravity, this year's other survival tale focused on a single person, had a similar problem). Yet apart from that minor quibble, All is Lost is bold, adventurous, and experimental, the work of an ambitious young filmmaker and an independent Hollywood legend working together to push the boundaries of cinema. A+

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