In order to talk about ALL IS LOST, I have to talk about its ending. This isn't so much a "spoiler alert" as much as a heads up that the following is a discussion of the one aspect of the movie that is in doubt when you enter the theater. If you don't want to know what happens at the end of the film, go see the movie. Then come back here and let's talk about it.
Okay then. Let's talk about it.
What's great about this movie is that it has the strength of its convictions. The filmmakers (star Robert Redford, writer and director J.C. Chandor) set out with a startlingly pure idea for a motion picture: a man on a sinking boat tries to stay alive. They stay locked into this idea with admirable focus. In some respects, ALL IS LOST harkens back to both Hitchcock's idea of "pure cinema" and, even earlier, the era of silent filmmaking. Aside for a brief monologue at the top and some cries for help or curses in the middle, the film simply observes Redford's unnamed protagonist going about his labors. We don't know who he is or why he's on the ocean by himself. Indeed, aside from a general sense of his doggedness and calm in the face of danger, we know nothing about his personality. He is a man on a sinking boat who is trying to stay alive.
As I think back about the movie, I'm left wondering what to make of it. It's engaging to be sure--there's some kind of primal thrill to watching a human being labor to survive. It's a truly existential film. That's an overused word these days, but it applies here with stark precision.
Yet beyond that--beyond the experience of the thing in the moment--I'm unsure what ALL IS LOST is trying to say. In the absence of normal signifiers of meaning (plot, characters, dialog) we're left, it seems to me, with two things: the performance of Redford, and the arc of the story--i.e. the ending.
On the first point, this is where I have to admit that I've never been a Redford fan. That's not to say that I don't like him. That's not to say anything bad about him, in fact. I've just never developed that attachment to him that one develops for certain actors. This adversely affects my viewing of the movie. In such a stripped down film, the actor's symbolic weight (his meaning as a film object) takes on outsized proportions. I think I know, in the abstract, what Redford symbolizes in cinema--but he's just never really symbolized that to me. If Harrison Ford had been on that sinking boat, for instance, I would doubtless have a different view of the film. I just can't read Redford. I don't read emotion into his reserve. He certainly gives a good performance here; it's simply not one that resonated with me, personally.
What that leaves is the ending of the film. Because you've seen it, you know that he is rescued at the last second. All, it turns out, is not lost. What does this mean? Is it a statement of faith? Of faith in what? God? Redford's character, notably, does not pray. Just at the level of realism, this seems odd to me. I'm going to hazard a guess that most people, faced with such perilous circumstances, might well cry out for help to whatever notion of god was at hand. Perhaps the character is an atheist. Fair enough, but if so we are talking about one seriously committed rationalist--one who, even at extremity's edge, does not cry out in any kind of fear, anger, or pleading. I suspect that's a small slice of humanity.
From a storytelling point of view, the argument against having Redford beseech some higher power might well be that his rescue could then be interpreted as a miracle. In the absence of a miracle, his rescue is either a) an ironic twist--so that doomed by chance, he is also saved by chance, b) an acknowledgement that even the most dedicated sad-ending-lovers among us do not want to see him struggle to survive for the better part of two hours only to die at the end, or c) a humanist statement of stunning banality.
We can dispense with option c) pretty quickly. Though the movie's promotional materials encourage us to "never give up" the movie itself makes no such argument. Redford does give up at the end. His salvation does not come from any triumph of the human spirit.
Option b) is simply true--at least it was for me. And I'm a guy who's dedicated his life to noir; I love me some downbeat endings. But at the moment in this film where it looked pretty certain that Redford would die and the credits would roll, I felt apprehension. I don't know how I would feel if he had died. I wanted to see him live. It's human nature. Deep down, we long to see human survival. The cosmic irony, of course, is that, in the end, we all die. A movie with a happy ending is just a movie that ends early.
This leaves us with option a), which seems to me, on reflection, to be the real meaning of the picture. Redford's survival at the end is deeply ironic--and I don't mean "ironic" in any sense to mean cheap or cheeky. I mean that the film is about a man's deliberate, desperate attempts to survive the randomness of the universe. Meaning is found in his striving. His survival at the end, like the accident that initiates this drama, is meaningless.
ALL IS LOST wasn't exactly the movie I thought I was going to see when I walked in theater, but as I think back on it, maybe that's a good thing. It lingers in the mind. It's kept me thinking now for hours. The more I reflect on it, the more I like it.