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A man (Robert Redford) is napping in his boat when a sudden thud awakes him. Worse, the floor begins to fill with rushing water. Calmly, he emerges from the cabin and realizes that a rusty red shipping container has punctured the hull. The water has damaged the electrical systems so the radio is dead and the bilge pumps don’t work. Silently, he assess and the patches the large hole and manages to rig a way to pump out the water by hand. He’s resourceful but the toll has been hard on the elderly man. He sleeps in a makeshift hammock over a cabin filled with ocean water.
Patient and deliberate the man doesn’t speak, he only works, seemingly unmoved by the damage and unending repairs. It is a slow determination that gets him through. In time, he’s fixed the hull and rid the boat of water. The only issue now is the radio and the navigation system. He has no way to know where he going and he can’t call for help. Pondering this dilemma, he pours himself a drink and when it starts to rain, goes up on deck and gets clean.
Next morning, he scales the sailboat’s mast to fix an antenna wire that came undone. Unfortunately, while atop his boat, he notices a massive tropical storm brewing on the horizon, moving his way quickly. Ever the steady worker, he returns to the deck and begins to prepare, locking everything down and securing the boat. Also, he shaves, because this is a fearless man desperate to maintain some control over his destiny. He then straps on a harness because and goes on deck to try and raise the storm jib, but is swept overboard. He’s able to scramble back on deck and get the job done eventually, and retreats below, sealing himself upside the cabin. His timing is perfect as the storm overturnes the Cal 39 sailing yacht, and then flips it right back around again. Undaunted, the man climbs out of the cabin just as the waves roll the boat again, this time dismasting the yacht. A few minutes later, he loses his balance and whacks his head, knocking himself unconscious. When he wakes, he discovers his boat is sinking. With the storm still raging, he makes a tough choice. He abandons ship. He inflates the life raft, secures provisions and rides out the storm. When it’s over, his sailboat is in ruins and eventually sinks. Now utterly alone, with almost no supplies and with no way to get help, it seems clear that for the man, all is lost.
Written and directed by J. C. Chandor, All is Lost is one of those films that easily divides audiences. Is it just a story about a man adrift at sea or is it something more, a story of a man adrift in life? Is its ending as concrete as it seems or is there something deeper to be mined? Does one watch and forget or does it haunt and linger for days beyond? Much might depends on what one is looking for. Spiritualists and realists could argue ad infinitum the metaphorical possibilities. There can be no denying the monumental work by Redford though, who has but a few spoken lines. There is something affecting about his silent determination, the way he accepts each spiraling defeat, moving forward and living with every setback, large or small. Theories abound as to why he is there at all, and his ambiguous, cryptic apology to loved ones at the opening lead only to further questions. Are we to believe this is just a man with a burdensome past, or is this something greater?
A boat and stormy seas as a parable on life is nothing new. Redford plays not just a man, but “Man” as he endures and learns and fails and struggles throughout, in what might be described as his birth, life, death and ascension, his apology to those whomever comes after or discovers our existence. The film poses many questions and offers only stirring visuals steeped in symbolism as clues. Watch as one tiny fish is seen swimming under the rubber raft. It is soon forgotten as we move above water and follow the man. But it isn’t long before we dive beneath the waves again, and this time it is a small school of fish swimming about, seemingly entranced by the shadow on the surface. In time, this school grows and grows and soon larger fish arrive, and with them come barracudas. All while the man continues his journey. At last come the sharks. A vast turbulent frenzy of them, with all the fish in a swirl. What they represent are all the things in life that gather under us as we move on. The fears, doubts, pain, and suffering. They live in the waters below our own tiny life rafts. It is the tale of a man facing his own death, figuratively and literally. Those giant tankers rolling by, oblivious to him as he drifts in his tiny rubber raft are the world moving on without him, his small contribution to it all practically insignificant. And there is the fascinating final frames, as our man rises from the depths, his round raft engulfed in a ring of fire and a bright light searching the water next to it. He swims for the fire first and then veers to the light, suggesting a choice is made before a hand pulls him up into the white. The wonderful thing about All is Lost is that it is so open to such interpretation, and was no doubt conceived, filmed, and packaged as such. However we see the man and his fate, it is ours alone to decide, love it or loathe it. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
His sailing yacht now sunk, the man is left adrift in his rubber life raft. He has little with him, aside from some canned rations, a sextant, a few flares and a large container of fresh water. Or so he thinks.
With nothing but open sea in all directions, the man has only one chance. Learning to use the sextant, he discovers he is drifting toward a shipping lane where he could be spotted by a massive tanker. He survived another tropical storm, which capsized the raft, but fought to right it and somehow managed to stay afloat. With the sea finally calm he allows himself a dry ration and a drink. When he opens the cap of the water jug, pours and takes a swig, he learns the water has been contaminated with sea salt. He is unbelieving at first, pouring it again, but with the same results. In a rare bit of anger, he tosses the cup and inspects the container, finding that the air flow cap is open. He clutches at his hair in frustration and then collapses against the raft wall. His voice broken and cracked, he cries out, swearing into the midday heat.
From the first moment we meet our man, he has been the very definition of cool under pressure. While odds stack up and become almost insurmountable, he has been nothing if not controlled. His pragmatic approach has served him well, despite what might be considered mistakes along the way. Never panicked, he contemplates, creates, tests, observes, and accomplishes, even if the ends don’t necessarily meet his needs. He establishes routines and procedures that don’t go ignored, even if, by our own standards seem inconsistent with how we might face such a dilemma. By the time he has suffered through one crisis after another, and continued on seemingly unabated, his reaction to having no potable water is surprising yet indescribably welcome. To endure as much as he has with so little emotion has been both inspiring and a little frustrating. We’ve wanted to scream for a long time. As heartbreaking as is it for him to discover he has no water, his outburst is, despite his predicament, undeniably satisfying.
We have all experienced failure, all lost to something both because of our mistakes and from things out of our control. For our man, it is about surviving, but the small victories are waning to the larger defeats. With this moment, we finally see a man, a human being. Whatever personal passions guide him, whatever maxims he holds dear, whatever ideals, morals, platitudes or tenets he adheres to, all are forgotten in this one devastating moment of despair. This is important for the audience as well. It brings the man closer to us. While we may have admired his courage, questioned his judgment, wondered at his motives, and hoped for his success, we are sure of our empathy. There is only so much a man can take, and for most of us, fortunately, that is a limit we will never face. But we recognize when others must. We look on him and see ourselves. Who would we be? What would we do?
Interestingly, the man lets this moment pass quickly, allowing the fury to blow clean his clouded mind and return to the singular task of staying alive. But we learned a lot. What more can we say about who is he is and how he came to be here? Is this constant level-headed behavior, this lack of expression and almost cold approach contributing factors for why he is in the Indian Ocean at all. Who has he left behind? And why? Smartly, these are unanswered and left for each of us to decide. We fill the void with faces and places, history and reasons, why and wherefore’s. We make it personal and give his journey meaning.