All Is Lost / J.C. Chandor / 2013 / fourstarAvailable on Netflix Instant at time of posting

Active Ingredients: Dramatic purity; Pacing and visual composition
Side Effects: Clarity of action; A few showy moments

I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another writer/director whose first two features are more dissimilar than J.C. Chandor’s. 2011’s Margin Call is an ensemble piece following a dozen main characters in the hours leading up to the recent financial meltdown, its script packed to the gills with speeches, banter, exposition and recapitulation. All Is Lost, on the other hand, features only one actor (a world-weary Robert Redford) and almost no on-screen dialogue. It’s a bold transition from Chandor’s debut to his sophomore effort, and it’s this newer film that proves his talents by wringing so much out of so little.

All Is Lost is about a man struggling to survive. That’s it. I’m impressed by Chandor’s commitment to narrative simplicity and by his understanding that a confrontation with mortality is more than dramatic enough to sustain a film. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, beautifully and succinctly, that “action is character.” Chandor and Redford prove the truth of those words by allowing the film’s unnamed protagonist—a lone yachtsman pushed to his limits by a raging storm—to be defined strictly by his actions. We learn about the man by the way he patches a hole in the ship’s hull; we understand him through the process of learning to navigate by sextant. Like last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, All Is Lost psychologizes through procedures, not words, and also like that film, the details of procedure make for riveting viewing.

Chander places his central figure on a collision course with nature and observes how he responds, testing his mettle through flooding, broken masts and roiling seas. It’s exciting and suspenseful, but All Is Lost is also anchored by a raw performance from Robert Redford. It’s as if the film and the audience is testing Redford’s survival skills as much as his character’s, stretching the performer to uncover previously unseen dimensions. Redford’s legendary charisma in films like The Sting (1973) and All the President’s Men (1976) relied on charm and a facility with words, two comforts he’s denied here. Instead, Redford uses his body, looking all of its 77 years, and a pure physicality that relates back to Fitzgerald’s adage.

The success of All Is Lost, then, stems from both Chander’s and Redford’s trust in the drama, excitement and narrative propulsion of pure action. Cinema has always thrived on this action, long before it learned to speak: on visual composition, pacing and the faces and physicality of its performers. All Is Lost may not exactly take film back to its roots, but it shows that the same dramatic principles that worked long ago still work today.

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