All Is Lost: A Survival Tale Only on the Surface

Review of All is Lost, Directed by J.C. Chandor

“It is the duty of all believers to be preparing themselves every day to die cheerfully, comfortably, and if it may be, triumphing in the Lord.”—John Owen, The Christian’s Work of Dying Daily

The Puritans were known for writing and preaching on the art of dying well. Those well prepared for death were thought to be better able to overcome any last-minute temptations of Satan, particularly in the area of security in one’s salvation.

J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, a survival tale featuring just one character (Robert Redford, billed as “our man”) and a boat, opens with a man’s parting words, written in a letter by the man to those he is leaving behind. “I’m sorry. … I tried. To be true. To be kind. To love. To be right. But I wasn’t.

“All is lost here except soul and body.”

In All Is Lost, there’s much to learn about the body, and maybe a little about the soul, but like the film’s point of view and camerawork, you have to go beneath the surface to uncover some of the story’s meaning. Even then, the film fights any deeper engagement about philosophy, faith or the art of dying well. Some will admire its in-the-moment focus on the fight to survive, but others will desire something more to help explain the lone character’s motives, mistakes and what brought him to a possibly lonely end.

After the opening voiceover, the film flashes back to eight days earlier, showing us the incident that has led to the man’s troubles, and to the letter that could be his final communication to loved ones. The Virginia Jean, his 39-foot yacht, has collided with a shipping container during a solo voyage in the middle of the Indian Ocean, opening a huge hole in the side of his boat. His only hope is to repair the boat and make it to a shipping lane, where he might be spotted by a passing vessel.

The film is about survival and perseverance in the face of long odds. But it’s also about how we face death. Our man’s attempt to stay alive is valiant and stoic, but it’s also a prayer-free zone (the movie has almost no dialogue, telling its story almost exclusively through visuals), another example of people in desperate, life-threatening circumstances who have nowhere to turn but within themselves for answers and hope.

Not surprisingly, the film becomes increasingly bleak as it heads toward its conclusion. But we root for the man right until the final credits roll.

For a while, All Is Lost is quite a show. Our man patches the hole in the side of his boat. He reads “Essential Navigation for Yachtsmen” and thoughtfully determines his next steps. He fixes a radio and makes a futile SOS call. Then, in a heart-stopping sequence, he climbs the ship’s mast only to discover he’s heading into a storm.

Chandor tells the story almost strictly through visuals, and the telling is mostly smooth sailing. It’s not until our man heads below deck that the movie becomes, well, ordinary, at least for several minutes, as he gathers things he’ll need to sustain himself during the storm and the rest of his journey.

If your attention flags during that sequence, don’t worry: There will be captivating, tense sequences to come, and the film will fully right itself once the man has to take refuge in an inflated raft. More than a few times thereafter, the perspective will shift underwater, with the camera filming the bottom of the raft as schools of fish swim between it and the raft. These serene shots grow more ominous as the man’s situation grows more desperate.

Will he be rescued? All Is Lost holds out the tantalizing possibility that he will—more than once. But it leaves us wondering what would happen if the man were to survive. Will he find peace? Will he be reconciled with those he believes he’s failed? He may be lost, but if he survives, will he be found?

But most of those questions don’t surface until after the movie ends, so caught up are we in Chandor’s telling of the tale. Redford gives a rugged performance of a man in action, but it’s hard to penetrate beneath his exterior and figure out what, beyond a basic will to keep living, might motivate him. Chandor’s film is designed to only hint at the character’s past and to what caused him to take his solo journey, but the film might have been more powerful were we allowed to know our man a bit more and to consider his place among the living rather than as one always on the cusp of death.

“When the time comes for you to die, you need not be afraid, because death cannot separate you from God’s love,” wrote Charles H. Spurgeon. But until death is certain, we should fight to preserve life. All Is Lost reminds us how powerful a motive the struggle to stay alive can be, even though it teaches us little else.

All Is Lost is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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