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If Life of Pi (2012) is magical realism, then All Is Lost is absolute realism. Some say it’s a modern version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I tend to see it as the flip side of Life of Pi. It is the magical, the supernatural that we pant for while watching the man in the film silently struggle to stay alive in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Without a miracle, this is what it is.

At the back of my mind was this query… In our age driven by visual spectacles and mega sights and sounds, why would someone take up a project of this nature, a 106 minute feature film with just one character and no dialogue, except for a few words from voice over in the opening when the man utters what seems to be his last words to his loved ones.

I admire the courage and talent of writer/director J. C. Chandor, who writes a 32 page script (according to IMDb) and directs it as a minimalist production in a time when the movie industry has gone ultra mega and high tech. All Is Lost is only Chandor’s second feature film. His directorial debut which he also wrote? Margin Call (2011), about the tempest in the tumultuous ocean of investment banking. Versatility is the mark of talent indeed.

But the film belongs to Robert Redford. No longer The Sundance Kid (1969) here but a 77 year-old actor playing a man dangling over the edge of survival. Redford just might have put forth the definitive performance in his long career. He has taken on the role with grace and gentleness, a paradox to his predicament in such a physical drama. He carries the whole film by engaging our empathy. His screen presence is the replacement of fancy plot lines, setting and dialogues. He plays a character with no name. Only when the end credits roll do we find out that he is called ‘Our Man’. 

Robert Redford in All is Lost

Unlike Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), who speaks and yells his mind, and socializes with a volley ball, Our Man is the epitome of restraint. He is the strong and silent type of veteran sailors on a solo voyage, who encounters the misfortune of being stranded in the vast ocean. At the beginning of the film we see Our Man wake up to find his sailboat has been hit by a loose cargo container floating by. The sailboat is taking on water through a hole in the hull. The radio and equipments are damaged. Our Man deals with the situation resourcefully. He uses a repair kit to mend the damage, pump water out, dry out his boat. We see him eat and shave. 

Just as he has made some headway to restore safety, an impending storm blows his way. Our Man is no match for nature’s callous ferocity. He ends up having to escape a sinking boat and jump into a life raft, bringing with him a meager supply of food and water. He learns to use a sextant, and carefully charts his drift. His only hope is to be seen if his raft drifts into the course of cargo ships. He utters no words except for a futile S.O.S. call while in his sinking boat, and one expletive out of total frustration in the raft after a few days of bare survival.

One man, one raft, one sea. The wide-screen cinema is probably the best medium to depict such an existential predicament. We don’t need special effects, for this is all that we have. And the nameless ‘Our Man’ shows how universal he is. And what of him? A patient and courageous man trying with all that he has and all that he is to stay alive, waiting to be found, hoping to be saved.

Do we need to know the name on that cargo container that hit his boat? It really is immaterial considering all that Our Man has gone through and all the efforts he has put forth to be saved. But just for information, we see the name in English, ‘Ho Won’, an obvious translation from the two Chinese words below: “Good Luck”. A jest too harsh.

Spoiler Alert. If you have not seen the film, you might want to skip the next paragraph, just that one. If you have seen the film, you’re most welcome to share your thoughts on the ending.

Like Life of Pi, the ending is open to your own interpretation. Two lines of thoughts conjured up as I watched the open-ended final scene: Only when one has lost all would one be saved. Or, go into that good night with gentleness, for brightness awaits. I can see both these scenarios to be applicable here. Again, this is one of those films that leaves the viewer to draw the conclusion, a type of ending which may not be very popular but one that conveys the multiplicity of reality.

As the credits roll, we hear the song for the film. I first thought singer songwriter Alex Ebert was calling ‘Our Man’ throughout his song. As I later found in the credits, it was ‘Amen’ (with the ‘Ah’ sound). Yes, ‘Amen’ is the title of the song.

A fine movie to watch with a quiet mind and patient disposition. A necessary offering in our present day of excess among some numbing and mindless entertainment. It’s like holding your breath in your hectic course of life for 106 minutes, and survive.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Click here to listen to Alex Ebert’s song ‘Amen’ and watch the trailer of the movie All Is Lost.

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