Last month, I very much enjoyed Gravity. It’s visually arresting, anchored by Sandra Bullock’s best performance, featured Chairman George, and was an effective, if literal, thriller. It’s also a great narrative representation of my personal philosophy that everything is meaningless, there’s no point to anything, and we all die alone. Gravity alleviated the inherent bleakness of that sentiment, though, by giving us hope that, in the end, there can be hope, if for no other reason than we wake up and decide to be hopeful that day. Well, late last week I caught a screening of writer/director JC Chandor’s follow up to Margin Call, a lost-at-sea story starring Robert Redford called All Is Lost. Here are two facts that sum up the experience of watching All Is Lost: 1) The only things that make me cry are Hallmark commercials during the holidays and that one sappy Budweiser commercial where the horse remembers his trainer, and 2) I wept my way through All Is Lost.
All Is Lost has a lot in common with Gravity. They’re both about people attempting to survive in incredibly hostile environments (space and the ocean, respectively, the two places that could not be more inhospitable to human life), they both feature stunning visuals, they’re both anchored by complex performances from veteran stars. But where Gravity was calibrated for a mass audience, All Is Lost makes no concession to the viewer. I don’t mean this as a ding against Gravity, because it’s pretty avant garde as far as commercially produced movies go, but there is no denying that All Is Lost is the more emotionally complex and nuanced of the two films.
Redford stars as “Our Man”, a nameless sailor who is shipwrecked and then spends the entire movie trying to survive against increasingly poor odds. There is no one else in the movie; he has only two lines of dialogue. Redford’s performance is incredible, easily one of the best of the year, and stands as one of the best of his career, too. And Chandor’s direction is assured and confident, giving us sweeping visuals and intimate moments of despair, never flinching or faltering even as All Is Lost takes on the proportions of a snuff film. Margin Call was surprisingly enjoyable for a movie about finance, and Chandor makes Lost, a near-silent single-hander, dynamic as well.
It is, however, at times a bit boring. I was moved by it, but I also checked my watch a couple times. At 106 minutes, it’s not a particularly long movie, but as lovingly rendered as the stormy seas are (and they are very well done), a feeling of sameness and repetition sets in. Gravity solved this by keeping Bullock’s character on the move, taking her through the differing environments of space and space station. All Is Lost is lost at sea, though, and there’s nowhere to go but down. Waves, even beautiful ones, are just waves, after a while. All Is Lost is the more richly layered and complex movie, but Gravity is more fun to watch.
All Is Lost is a film that reminded me strongly of poetry, one that affected me in a way similar to a good poem. It’s not for everyone, but if you want to see something different, if you want to see tremendous acting and ambitious filmmaking, definitely give it a go. Even with the boring bits, it’s a solid A of a movie, a top-tenner for sure. I heard some complaints levied (fairly) against Gravity for being too obvious and literal—if you thought that, definitely watch All Is Lost, which is neither of those things. It is much bleaker—a total bummer, really—but it’s bold and interesting filmmaking, and even after the similar Gravity, feels like something unique in modern cinema.