Review of All is Lost, Directed by J.C. Chandor
All is Lost quickly divided audiences into those who relished its novelty of one cast member (Robert Redford playing “our man”), a monologue totaling about 50 words, and enthralling details of how to survive at sea, and those who despised the film as pretentious, shallow, and meaningless. Our Man starts the film with a brief voiceover–a reflection of remorse, presumably aimed at his family, which ends with “all is lost here except body and soul.” The last sentence hangs there and serves as the thesis of the whole narrative, as nature strips Our Man of literally everything but body and soul. In the end, even hope is lost.
Immediately after the monologue, we find Our Man is asleep in his yacht, the Virginia Jean, only to find the lower deck to be flooding due a gash in the yacht’s hull, the result of a collision with a shipping container. All is Lost starts will little background story on the man’s life, nor does it furnish any details later on in the film. This solipsistic setup is all the more intriguing because we sit entranced in Redford’s excellent acting and director J.C. Chandor’s vision.
Part of the film’s draw is how Our Man finds ways to survive. He uses a parachute anchor to dislodge the shipping container nestled in the side of Virginia Jean. We watch him patch the hole with fabric, sticks of wood, and a glue sealant. Our Man uses a manual pump to drain lower deck. He tries to fix the radio damaged by the water. We witness the capsizing of his yacht as it’s buffeted by storm waves. Our Man escapes onto an inflatable life raft only to discover later that his jug of potable water is undrinkable and he resorts to drinking the trapped evaporation of ocean water. I could go on. Scene after scene we see hope slowly slipping away.
The lack of dialogue in the film allows the audience to imagine what’s going on in Our Man’s head. We also compare what he does with how we ourselves would behave. When watching All is Lost, viewers will have widely varying reactions. For me, I could not bring myself to believe that I would have such a tenacious drive for survival. The perseverance of Our Man and his ingenuity continued to astound. As the inflatable raft enters shipping transit routes, he encounters a number of freight ships. All is Lost is the only film I have seen where flares and signals to ships passing by fail to obtain help. Imagine the hopelessness of it all.
More than a man versus nature story, we get a study in what it looks like to be truly lost. Our Man keeps a log of his location, charting his trajectory across the Indian Ocean. Undoubtedly the map gave him a sense of progress and where there’s progress there’s hope. But when he finally reached the transit routes and the ships were not stopping to help, he began to realize that he was truly lost. Not lost in the sense of not knowing his location, but existentially lost. All he had left were body and soul, and even these Our Man, at the end of his rope, was ready to concede.
The unfortunate part is that having lost it all, Our Man does not turn to the bigger questions. In reality, for everyone, all is lost. This is a reality the Teacher of Ecclesiastes knew well. We may not be stuck on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but that doesn’t erase the fact that all is passing. In the end, we will be stripped of all we have, by force or by time. A sense of hopelessness, similar to that experienced by Our Man, is a proper response, though instead of acknowledging it, we try to find purpose in things that fade. Our Man said, “All is lost here except body and soul.” But what about when these too are lost? Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Read another Schaeffer’s Ghost review of All is Lost by Christian Hamaker here.