Thursday, February 20, 2014

The old man and the sea…

2013 seemed rich with films about survival, about facing insurmountable odds and coming face to face with your literal fate.  No two movies seemed to get pegged with that label more than ‘All is Lost’ and ‘Gravity’, and for most of the first half (and even second half) of last year these two films were compared to one another and pitted against one another and debated as a pair because of their similarities.  Both films offer us an intimate look at ONE person’s fight for survival; sort of.  You see, where ‘Gravity’ takes us on a journey of one woman’s physical, emotional and mental FIGHT to survive odds that seems utterly inconceivable, ‘All is Lost’ shows us one man’s mental preparation for the inevitable; death.

In other words, this is not the story of a fight but a portrait of a man who just gave up.

This is in no way, shape or form a knock to the value and quality of this film, but I do think that there is a clear dividing line between the two films and I feel that the distinction should be made because they are not the same film (with a different location) but really they are two separate films taking the same scenario (with a different location) and giving us an entirely different character portrait.

When ‘All is Lost’ begins, we hear in voiceover our nameless main character (only character) recite his last words, a letter penned on his life-raft.  I don’t mean to start the review in the negative, but the letter itself was rather vacant in meaning and Redford’s line delivery was stagnant and emotionless.  I expected a more solemn, more endearing letter and especially delivery because this is supposed to set us up for the film we are about to watch, and in all honesty I wish that it had been cut from the film, because the film itself is much better than that opening would suggest.  Next, the film truly begins, eight days before the letter was written.  Redford is awakened by rushing water as he notices that his boat has struck a container floating in the middle of the ocean and has taken on a large hole and a lot of water.  He dislodges and patches his hole, but his troubles are only beginning.  With drenched electronics and a few maps, Redford is basically a sitting duck for any obstacle, and a terrible storm over the horizon is just the obstacle that is going to wreck his day, week…life.

While this character is obviously resourceful (he mans the boat on his own, takes necessary precautions when he notices the storm looming overhead and even manages to survive when many would have lost their lives almost immediately) but it is clear that this man has resigned himself to death pretty early on.  He prolongs his life as long as possible, but his actions are predominately reactionary, taking what comes to him and not thinking about how he can survive outside of the ‘now’.

While some would say that this is a criticism and possibly even find fault with my assumption here, the fact remains that I actually think this angle colors in the character more than it would have had I tried to perceive him as a survivor in the most dramatic sense of the word.  He is a survivor, but his emotional decline (which is mostly wordless and fused together solely on expressions) is what drives the film’s core.  While many have complained that Redford’s character basically sits the entire film out, confined to a raft while he watches the world around him crumble, I actually found this aspect of the film fascinating.  True, the film’s redundancy in many areas is a fault and one that should have been edited better.  There are many scenes that feel similar and don’t further the point of the film much.  Bad things continue to happen, and there is an impact to be had with that awareness, but by the film’s end it became a tad too repetitive and that made the film feel less progressive and more stagnant.  Still, as I mentioned, this man’s subconscious resign to death is what makes this film unique and more meaningful as a whole.  Instead of actively fighting to survive, this man travels through most of the film like a ghost, dwelling in this scenario but never truly living in it.  Even his attempts to be saved feel underdeveloped, but from a cinematic standpoint (because I really think this was the point) but from a personal level.  I feel as though the film was underscoring (subtly, which is why so many can presume these moments are just lazy writing) this man’s coming to terms with his morality.

Redford is very good here.  In a nearly wordless performance, he completely engages who this man is inside and out.  There are so many reactionary scenes that capture such intense humanity without being theatrical or overwhelming.  He WAS this man, and that came through loud and clear.

From a technical angle, I found the film to be rather impressive.  The cinematography is exceptional here and really captures so many angles beautifully.  I’m not just talking about the stunning underwater work (which is stunning) or the wide expanse of the open water, but the lighting used to portray the boat and the lifeboat are stunning in their own right and show such visual range.  I did like the score, but I also found that it was distracting in many scenes and added an overtness that the film was trying to avoid as a whole and so I really wish it hadn’t been used.  The scenes that are devoid of music work so much better that the ones that utilize it.

As a whole, I can understand both sides of this argument.  This film has some devout supporters who consider it a masterpiece and one the finest films of the year.  There are also MANY who consider this a bore and a vacant work of nothing.  I don’t agree with either sentiment, but I see why those conclusions are being drawn.  For me, ‘All is Lost’ has a great central theme and J.C. Chandor’s handling of this film is pretty impactful, but the film lacks a tightness that I think would have served it well.  It is allowed too much room to drift in some areas, and while I do accept the ambiguous ending as a clear nod to hope (whether he be rescued or taken to heaven), I feel that it was sorely used and didn’t fit the film properly.

Honestly, if you lopped off the film’s opening and closing and found a way to edit down about ten extra minutes of monotony throughout, this would be perfect.

I give this a B+.  After watching this, I'm not surprised in the least that this was Oscar ignored (except for Sound Editing).  While the film had a seemingly great critical response and wound up getting some nice traction, especially for Redford, the film is far too quiet and unassuming to really make a serious impact with a voting body, especially when 'Gravity' is there and much more immediately impactful.  I will admit, I personally feel that 'Gravity' is the better film as well, so I'm not complaining, but I also explained that I feel they are two separate films with two clearly distinct points of view.  


  1. Great review Andrew! My hunch is that this is a film for die hard Redford fan only. I'm a bit weary of the repetitive nature that might make it too tedious. I do like Redford though so I might rent it if the mood strikes.

    – ruth

    1. As an intriguing twist to the story, my wife tells me today "I really liked that movie the other night. I really got into it." and she was not really a fan of Gravity at you never know.

  2. This feels like a great companion piece to Cast Away. Both are solid lost-at-sea films with a good lead performance and wonderful sound design.

    It's easy to see why Redford missed the cut, especially in a year as strong as 2013. I'm thrilled that it at least got a sound nod, though.

    1. The technical aspects here were outstanding, to be honest, but it's pretty easy to see why Redford was ignored. If I had seen this earlier, I wouldn't have predicted him for so long (or at all).