The art of storytelling. It’s the backbone of any great film, regardless of age, budget, genre, or audience. Without a director who can tell a story, no matter what that story may be, a film is just a collection of scenes strung together in the hope the audience doesn’t care as long as things go ‘boom’ or jokes are told with rapid frequency.
In director J.C Chandor’s All Is Lost we open on a black screen and hear the sound of waves lapping. A title card tells us we are 1700 nautical miles from shore in the Indian Ocean, and we then hear a short voice over. We’re two minutes into a 105-minute film, and from here on we’ll hear barely another word of dialogue, we’ll see only one actor, we’ll see only one setting, and what follows will hit us with every emotion possible. All Is Lost isn’t just cinematic storytelling at its best, it’s the very definition of it.
What Chandor has achieved here is, as far as my movie-going experiences are concerned, a unique film experience. We’ve seen plenty of single location films before, but never one which is essentially dialogue-free. The camera placement, lens choice, acting, music, scene length, and visual queues have to tell us everything because there is no alternative. Chandor has presented such a tough challenge for himself, it’s a wonder the film even got made, let alone turned out to be near-perfection.
Moreover, the dialogue-free storytelling is not an act of pretention or a gimmick, but the beauty of Chandor’s story is that it doesn’t require words. By casting Robert Redford we can tell by his presence that he is an experienced sailor; no words would add to that, so no additional words are said. There isn’t a ‘Wilson’ volleyball to confide in, nor is there another sailor on the end of a radio to allow us to hear Redford’s internal thoughts. We know practically nothing about this man; not how long he has been at sea, not what his mission or goal was, not who he has waiting for him back home, and not even his name (he is credited as ‘Our Man’). Despite all this, it makes no difference. If we knew these things, would it make his plight any more desperate, or would his survival anymore uplifting? On the strength of the film, the answer is definitively ‘no’.‘Our Man’ is a superbly written character because through him Chandor is able to raise the stakes and the development of the plot, such as it is. When the film begins, his yacht has been hit by a stray shipping container (we don’t know where from, it doesn’t matter) and water is leaking in. The script could now go two ways; instantly ramping up the fear of dying at sea if the damage cannot be fixed and setting a high bar of tension from the very start, or it could go in the opposite way, which it does. Our Man methodically fixes the damage over several scenes of systematic processes only a seasoned sailor would know how to do. He doesn’t panic, so neither do we.
Needless to say Robert Redford gives an outstanding performance, the likes of which are so rare for any actor to take on, let alone a 77 year old. The film’s success rests, partially, on his ability to convince us this is all happening and there is never a moment when he doesn’t.
In the following scenes he faces the worst that nature can throw at him: he is bruised and battered, his yacht is destroyed, he loses all his possessions which may have been with him on countless other voyages, he is forced to live out of a survival kit. All the while he keeps it together, never asking for the audience’s sympathy. He isn’t a construct made up of clichéd dialogue (Gravity, I’m looking at you) because the film maker is too worried that his audience won’t feel enough genuine emotion, he is a just a man. It could be any man, any nationality, race, age, and it could be any time in history or in any ocean. Survival is survival and Chandor makes us feel for this man we barely know.
Added to this, Chandor never lets his film get stale, and the visuals remain beautiful and captivating throughout, whether it be a yacht turning 360 degrees in a storm or the sight of a school of fish swimming beneath a life raft. All Is Lost has our attention from the first frame to the last. Now that is the sign of a director operating at the highest level of his art and All Is Lost is at that highest of levels.