Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Man and the Sea

All is Lost, the second film from J.C. Chandor, has a storyline as basic as time - survival at sea. We've seen stories of this nature before, but as far as I can recall, we really haven't seen this particular story before or at least not one told as well as it is in this remarkable film.

Robert Redford, still a physical presence at 77, is the sole character in this film; referred to as "Our Man" in the closing titles, he is maneuvering his small craft in the Indian Ocean on what we presume to be his attempt to sail around the world. He wakens one morning to see his boat has taken on water due to a collision with a shipping container that left a hole in the side of his craft; he repairs this as well as possible, but soon, the fierce nature of the sea is too much for the small boat and Our Man has to go it alone in a life raft.

That's the plot and yet much more happens, though I don't want to spoil it. What's marvelous about this film is how we watch this character adapt to a life and death situation; here is a man without a tiger (or other CGI creatures) for company, as in last year's Life of Pi. No, it's just Our Man against the sea. He could complain about his fate, but for the most part he doesn't, save for one well-chosen four-letter word.

That utterance, along with a short message he desperately tries to leave on a short-wave radio, are the only words Our Man speaks in the entire film (there is also a brief narrative speech that opens the film - we are led to believe that he is speaking the words he wrote in a note to his family/loved ones near the end of the film).

So while some have commented that this resembles a silent film, we do have the advantage of sound, which is beautifully handled, especially when it comes to the noise of the waves crashing against the boat and of Our Man battling his way underwater during a few critical moments. There is also a nice minimal score by Alex Ebert, who thankfully knew that a soundtrack can be quite effective when there is not music underlining the on-screen action (compare this score to the almost wall-to wall effort of Henry Jackman for Captain Phillips). These sounds - and silences - are crucial to the primal nature of the film and to our emotions watching this work. A big thumbs up to sound designer Steve Boeddeker and his team for their first-rate craftsmanship.

The work of the two cinematographers on this film - Frank DeMarco above water and Peter Zuccarini underwater - also add to the awe and wonder of this film. The success of their work is vitally important, as the action is limited to a very small space; technically, the photography is excellent - it's a beautiful looking film - and on an artistic level, the blues of the sky and the sea have a shimmering, yet haunting look to them.

Of course this film would not have worked had it not been for two other individuals; Redford and Chandor. The actor is perfect for this role, as he is a pillar of strength amidst potential disaster. Redford works beautifully with his hands - really his entire body here - giving us the certainly that he can handle this perilous situation; you just believe in him from the first frame he appears on screen. He is a model of self-confidence - he will do just enough to survive and if it means shaping a device to filter sea water to make it drinkable or learning how to use a sextant to read the stars, that's what he'll do.

Chandor directs the film with great fluidity, avoiding clich├ęs and obvious moments. This is such a basic story in its nature and the director knows he doesn't need to trick things up. Watching this adventure is something of how-to manual of how to survive at sea and Chandor along with Redford's work help give this film its tone and shape. Interesting that Chandor's first film, Margin Call, was filled with dialogue, while this has less than 10 words spoken in the body of the film. While both films deal with an individual (or individuals) dealing with a crisis - Margin Call was about a specific problem at a brokerage house during the 2008 Wall Street mess - one could hardly imagine two more different films, visually and aurally from the same creator.

I also want to point out one particular image of great beauty and sadness, as we watch a flare that Our Man has lit as a signal to a passing commercial ship at night; the crew aboard this large vessel cannot see such a small figure up close, so as the flare falls to its descent on the left side of the screen, we see the ship sail away on the far right of the screen. Visually, Chandor has presented us with a beautiful composition, while emotionally, this is a shattering moment, both for Our Man and for the audience.

At times, existential in nature and at times religious, All is Lost succeeds on many levels, especially when it comes to putting the viewer into the midst of danger. This is one of the year's most singular - and finest - films.

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