Gary Cooper once said that he loved doing Westerns, in fact he preferred doing them, because they were so grounded in reality. You couldn’t fake mounting a horse, you had to really do it. You couldn’t fake riding, you had to really do it. It stripped away the sometimes phony ballast of acting, leaving you, the actor, in a position where you HAD to deal with reality, almost like an athlete has to deal with reality. There’s no faking swinging a baseball bat.
Robert Redford’s non-movie-star performance in All is Lost reminded me of Gary Cooper’s comment. It’s not that he’s not acting: of course he is. He is reacting to fake stimuli, and imaginary circumstances. But the performance is based around doing, not feeling. There are a couple of moments of sheer feeling, but that’s it. Everything else is problem-solving, surviving, and improvising his way out of one disaster after another. He’s the only human being in the movie. There are no flashbacks to what his life was before. There are not inner-monologues, no voiceovers (except for the opening, which is a Farewell letter, so no spoilers), not even a slow pan across the yacht below-decks area, showing family photographs and memorabilia from his life. None of that. He is completely unconnected from his past. Of course he has a past. We just are not privy to it. Unlike Gravity, which gives the heroine a back story (something I did not have a problem with, although I can see why others did), All is Lost unmoors itself from traditional storytelling arcs, and has faith that one man’s struggle against the elements will hold our interest, without giving us a hook via character/motivation/back story to keep us invested.
It was a risk (I would love to see what the screenplay actually looked like on the page), and it paid off. I know nothing about yachting or sailing. I do not know if he is a good problem-solver or a poor one. I saw a comment on some review of the film where a seasoned yachter sneered at how “incompetent” the character was on basic yachting skills, and how that made the film unbelievable. I actually found that comment unbelievable. Because maybe he wasn’t supposed to be Mr. Yacht Expert. We have no way of knowing. Maybe he WAS incompetent. Your guess is as good as mine. And since I know nothing about boating, I didn’t even know if I was asking the proper questions as I watched the film. My main question was: “Why the hell is he in the middle of the Indian Ocean?” Maybe yachting aficionados could weigh in. Is that considered to be a dangerous foolhardy thing to do? Or is it par for the course for retired millionaires who love being out on the water? No idea. None of these questions meant I had to “suspend disbelief” – because there are no answers in the film anyway. And if he WAS incompetent … then why wouldn’t that be a valid thing to put onscreen, Mr. Yachting Expert commenter? I know, I know, the commenter just wanted to show his knowledge, I get it. But the information we are given in All is Lost is completely sparse. He is out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, by himself. When things start to go south (almost immediately), he has to improvise his way out of it. When his instrumentation is damaged, he pulls out a book called NAVIGATING BY THE STARS and starts to teach it to himself. He has a sextant on board, but it’s still in the box and wrapped in plastic. So, you know, I put that together and think, Well maybe this was just an expensive hobby, and he liked the outward aspects of it (having a boat, having the freedom) but was a novice in the more elemental facts of navigation. Seems like that would be true of a lot of boaters today, technology being what it is.
All of this is neither here nor there, although it is interesting and I kept thinking about it after the film. I kept wondering about that guy. Because he is played by Robert Redford, we already come to him with all kinds of associations, powerful, resonant. Half of the film is us projecting all of our stuff onto him. The great movie stars all may be talented charismatic individuals but what they all do best is act as projector screens for our associations/dreams. That was what was going on for me watching Redford in this film. I kept seeing him in Butch Cassidy and The Way We Were and The Sting and all the rest, but he is old now, and his skin shows the wear and tear of too much sun, and he’s got age spots, and creaky knees, but he’s still Robert Redford, a powerful compelling onscreen presence.
The film starts out with the disastrous event (not to mention the film’s totally discouraging title), and then we back into how he got to that point. I have a tremendous fear of drowning, and being lost at sea in bad weather, so the film worked on a primal level that was uncomfortable in the extreme. The first storm that hits was filmed so perfectly (and you barely see any of the storm itself, you just HEAR it), that I felt like I was on that boat and I felt terror. This was done through suggestion mostly. You didn’t get CGI landscapes of mountainous waves. You just heard the shrieking of the wind, the blast of the spray, and the sound of the wood of the boat cracking and splitting apart. It went on forever.
The accident that prompts all of the problems is the yacht, in a dead-calm, drifting, rams into an abandoned cargo container that obviously had fallen off of Captain Phillips’ cargo ship earlier that week. The collision rips a hole in the side of the yacht and water pours through. This is the first 5 minutes of the film. I scanned Redford’s face for news of how bad it was, was this fix-able, was this The End? He gave no answers. He was too busy trying to handle the damn problem, no time for expressive emoting. That slightly mysterious aspect to his performance is one of the reasons why the film feels so real. People in the midst of disasters do not take time out of the disaster to cry or rage. More often than not they band together to try to fix the problem, their faces serious and focused. Any catharsis will come later. So All is Lost works on that level for the audience: I yearned for a catharsis, I yearned for a moment when I could relax, when he could relax, when he could let go of his hyper-vigilance and allow himself some feelings about it. The fact that the film denies me that is one of its aces in the hole. There are times when the tension actually became unbearable. Literally. I was uncomfortable in my seat, I wanted to get up and flee, I wanted the whole thing to fucking END.
I’m thinking, again, of my experience watching the documentary Touching the Void, which I mentioned when I discussed Gravity. Touching the Void touched off a similar series of thoughts: How would I do in such a situation? Would I hold it together? Would I be able to keep improvising? Would I crumble under the pressure?
Another bold choice in the film has to do with its spare and effective use of the score. The score is barely there. There is no rousing underscoring, letting us know the stakes, or the fact that he is almost finished with such-and-such task and it’s a real nail-biter and will he succeed?? None of that. We just hear the wind, the slapping of the waves. It’s brutal. So the couple of times the score comes in it is usually when the camera suddenly takes a more omniscient view of events: the liferaft seen from below, for example, with schools of fish flowing by, and sharks circling in the deep (incredible shot). Or the sudden long-shot of thunderclouds gathering on the horizon. These are moments where we are removed, suddenly, from the totally subjective experience of seeing the film through Redford’s eyes, and given a glimpse of his small-ness in the face of events, his fragility and vulnerability. The score is not emotional so much as it is an ominous heartbeat. It sounds like the dread that he has been trying to keep at bay, suddenly rising up from below.
The ending of All is Lost, when it comes, is a stunner. I staggered out of the theatre, an emotional wreck.