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All Is Lost: The Sea Will Probably Kill Ya

After his acclaimed directorial debut Margin Call, a movie that was awash in talk (specifically of the Wall Street variety) writer/director J.C. Chandor throws out a change-up with his sophomore effort, All is Lost, where nary a word is spoken. Instead, the majority of the sounds heard during this filmed sea voyage, aside from a stringently-used score, are elemental: the lapping waves, the howling winds, the breathing of the nameless lone sailor (Robert Redford) and -- in some of the most affecting moments -- the simple sound of silence. To paraphrase the immortal words of Missus Mia Wallace, that's how you know when you've found a special movie: when it can just shut the eff up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

All is Lost is less special because of what it's about, though, than because of how it's been put together. Shot mostly on open water (though several key sequences were filmed in a tank) on full-size boats, the film has an immediate, you-are-there quality absent from other recent, more effects-heavy man vs. nature adventures including Life of Pi and even, to a certain extent, Gravity. (That movie is a technical marvel, to be sure, but there's always the nagging knowledge that it's taking place within a digitally simulated environment. Whatever staged elements might have gone into this film's making, that's still the very real Robert Redford aboard a very real boat on the very real water.) The realism is further enhanced by the minimal dialogue and the lack of any extraneous backstory for the hero. Chandor's purpose is to invite the viewer into a very specific, very narrow window in this character's life. What came before and what comes next in his life doesn't matter: his attention -- and ours -- is entirely in the now.

And that makes sense considering that in the now, he's fighting for his very existence. As the movie begins, the sailor awakens to discover than an unexpected collision with an errant cargo crate has ripped a sizeable hole in the side of his ship and ruined his navigational equipment. He's able to patch up the hole, but a fresh wave of trouble follows in the form of a serious storm that continues to dent the already banged-up vessel. Eventually, he's forced to retreat to a rubber lifeboat, but King Triton apparently isn't through with him yet. Disasters small and large continue to befall the poor guy, until -- as the title baldly states -- all is lost and it comes down to one old man against a very angry sea.

Chandor has crafted a pleasantly straightforward and exceptionally tense tale of survival here, but is that enough? For some it might not be and that's an entirely understandable reaction. While I didn't at all miss the spiritual gobbledygook or droning narration present in Life of Pi, that movie did sail through metaphorical waters that I found intriguing, whereas this film's themes are more surface-level. (Plus, that CGI tiger was a great co-star.) And where some have held up All is Lost's lack of backstory as a creative choice Gravity might have benefitted from, I consider Sandra Bullock's personal history -- inelegantly integrated as it sometimes is -- absolutely vital to that movie's immersive impact. Excising that information might be more realistic to this specific situation, but I don't know that it necessarily lends the overall film any additional dramatic or thematic… um, weight.

That said, I was completed absorbed throughout All is Lost and appreciated the skill with which Chandor brought his very specific vision to life, as well as Redford's weather-beaten, wordless performance. Several reviewers have already noted its resemblance to a Jack London yarn, but the book it most put me in mind of is Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, a novel I read over and over again when I was a kid, vicariously living through Brian Robeson's adventures in the wild. That book satiated my desire to ever rough it in the great outdoors, just as All is Lost has now allowed me to experience the thrills and chills of a solo oceanic voyage without having to actually get wet.

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