All is Lost (2013)

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All is Lost is the Robert Redford film where he is the only cast member and there is no dialogue. This is all I knew about this film and it was enough to make me want to watch it. Peripheral anecdotes had seemed positive, along the lines of surprise at how watchable the film was, even without dialogue. Redford plays a sailor who seems to be in his sixties or seventies (Redford is 77 but not surprisingly has fewer lines and grey hairs than you would expect) who is sailing alone on a rather nice yacht. An unexpected accident happens that damages his yacht and from then, we see him struggle from one mishap to another as his situation becomes more serious.

The filming is very close-up and we are always no more than arms-length from the sailor. This puts us right in the moment with him as he ponders and struggles, first at a leisurely pace and then increasingly more desperately. There is a little narration right at the start and the occasional expletive and attempted radio call but, other than this, there are no words. What this means is that you are given no back story of the character, we don’t know why he is there, what got him there, who, if anyone, is waiting for him back home.

Without words, your understanding of character development and story arc can be drawn only from what you see happening. This is a brave move. It puts a lot of responsibility on the actor to convey his internal experience through actions, expression and gestures. An understanding of sailing would help, as I expect much was being shown about the sailor’s skill level and preparation, or lack of it, that would have helped us better understand his character. I admire the chutzpah of this film-maker for taking these risks.

What it also means – and this became apparent in the discussion after watching the film – is that the viewer can more easily project their own ideas/life view/bias onto the film, making it as meaningful or meaningless as they choose. There is little to contradict most interpretations. For my sister, it was a deep metaphor about how we struggle but only find redemption when we let go. For me, I felt I could see Redford ‘acting’ all the way through and this stopped me from seeing any great meaning in his actions, having any great interest in his fate. With a bit of research, I discovered that the writer-director meant the final scene to have two interpretations and this supports my sister’s understanding of the film.

I don’t know much about sailing but it seemed that the sailor kept making mistakes. I’m not sure how much of this was deliberate – I think we are supposed to understand that he has a certain amount of hubris and so was not really prepared for an emergency at sea – and how much was expedient and designed not to be noticed by a general audience. He had no EPIRB nor portable radio, two things that it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have bothered with and also two things that would have made the film a lot shorter. Narrative convenience or a sign of his arrogance? I’m still not sure.

Bechdel test – fail (as there was only one male character)
3 stars

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