Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Every year, every month, every week, and every day brings with it it’s own set of challenges. When I look back on this past year, there have been many challenges I’ve faced, large and small, minor and significant, but there’s one in particular that stands out in my mind. During my work over the summer, in an effort to self-improve, I decided to push myself physically by exercising every morning. It had been a long time since I’d motivated myself to do so, and I had taken note of my inactivity. Once I began, though, some of the results were immediate. It’s incredible what a little bit of exercise can do to improve your mental stability and health. I began to feel, for the first time since graduating college, that I was in control. I had secured a job for the time being, I was eating healthy, I was getting substantial exercise, and I was ultimately feeling happy. But I pushed myself too hard too fast. Less than a week and a half in, as I walked up the stairs, it grew increasingly painful to put weight on my right leg. Only a day later, I was using crutches for the first time in my life. I could no longer exercise, no longer get my own food, and, most importantly, no longer adequately perform my work. Worst of all, I was in a city and environment significantly foreign to me, and no one could tell me what was wrong with my leg. Everything that had shaped that feeling of control and happiness had been flipped upside down. What once felt limitless now felt exceedingly limited. Doing laundry, taking a shower, or getting anywhere on time all suddenly became a lengthy, taxing ordeal. My mood took a swing for the worse, as I fought to prevent all the sadness, anxiety, fear, frustration, and self-loathing from overwhelming me. See, I blamed myself for my current state, for taking everything that had been good and productive about my life and ruining it by pushing myself to unhealthy limits. That laid heavy on me for a long time. Compared to the troubles and challenges in others’ lives, it’s remarkably trivial in nature, but never had things changed so drastically and frighteningly for me before in my life. It wasn’t just physically taxing or mentally taxing, it was both. My spirit was crushed. Faced with not only my physical ailment, but myself and my own defeat, how could I go on? Many of us face such unexpected roadblocks in our lives constantly. Some are able to move past them, to endure, to persevere, while others are forced to carry them on, burdened by them, and are sometimes ultimately destroyed by them. What does our ability, or inability, to survive say about each of us? What does it say about human nature?Survival has been a common theme in film over the last few years, but never has it been more present than it was in 2013. Critically acclaimed films such as Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Philips, and Dallas Buyers Club are all deeply rooted in the theme of survival. Two films dealing with apocalyptic circumstances (This Is The End, The World’s End) are about survival. The entire concept, series, and subsequent film series of The Hunger Games has survival imprinted in its DNA. Survival is an idea that speaks to us all, that we encounter on a daily basis, whether on a small or large scale. The will to survive is one of most powerful driving forces of human nature. It’s understandable then, that survival has been at the core of some of the most complex, powerful, and deeply affecting cinematic creations. However, the single character, single location survival film is less common. Films like Cast Away and 127 Hours have mined the depths of performance and character through such stories, but they are few and far between. While I do believe All Is Lost is akin to both of those films, it’s also something else entirely.
J.C. Chandor is most notable for having directed the 2011 film Margin Call, an ensemble drama about the initial stages of the financial crisis of 2007-08 with a heady, but razor sharp script that gained an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Having directed such a star-studded cast, it’s surprising that Chandor would opt for such a small scale film to follow up his substantial debut. The fact that Margin Call and All Is Lost are good films in their own right, especially from a fledgling director, is a testament to Chandor’s skill and versatility, and signals him as a talent to watch (He has cast Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, and Albert Brooks in his next feature, A Most Violent Year, to be released next year).It’s clear that Chandor has the ability to attract significant actors, and for a film that only requires one performer, he chose one of the best: Robert Redford.
Redford is an old school movie star, perhaps best known for his work alongside Paul Newman and his directing, but that’s ultimately what makes him perfect for this particular role. For Chandor’s purposes, he is the everyman. Redford is a performer we immediately recognize, yet not what he once was. The Redford we remember is still the man we see, and yet, at the same time, isn’t. He’s still rugged, but it would be a lie to say that time hasn’t made it’s mark on him. He’s not a young man anymore, but rather a man in the autumn of his life who has been rough hewn by the seasons as they pass. He’s a movie star, yes, but one who, at this point in his life and career, is easily relatable to us as an audience. He’s one we can identify with in his struggles. There’s a personal connection there that we feel, built up with audiences over time, that not all actors can achieve. That makes him the perfect lens through which this story can be told. It’s an almost wordless performance, and everything we know and feel about his character is shaped by what we see etched across Redford’s face. So much of the man can be read in his eyes, his brow, his knuckles, his wind- and rain-beaten hair, his slowed gait, and everything he does. Thoughts and emotions are not spoken but embodied, often in complex forms. Everything is so immediate and present, you feel like you are there alongside him, yet unable to assist in any way, only to observe. The moments of brief dialogue are used sparingly, and to powerful and significant effect. Never has the single utterance of the word “Fuck” been used to such powerful, emotional, and devastating effect. It’s a moment of self-hatred and frustration, so easy to empathize with, yet nonetheless hard to watch, communicated with brutal truth by Redford. It’s an incredibly bold performance, a harsh and bruising journey, that would be a challenge for any performer, let alone someone of Redford’s age. His will to survive must be believable, just as it must believably fall away, for us to become invested in his plight. It’s pure living and surviving, embodied so effortlessly by Redford, it comes off as deceptively simple. It’s a shame he missed his opportunity to be nominated for a second Oscar, because it’s undoubtedly one of his finest performances, if not THE finest, of his lengthy career.
It’s almost startling that such a deeply realized and layered performance has been shaped with no backstory at all. Perhaps that is the boldest choice in a film full of them. Other films of this nature rely heavily on what we learn about the character through scenes of flashback or exposition in order for us to connect and empathize with the protagonist. In All Is Lost, we go in knowing nothing, immediately thrown into our character’s current circumstances. In a way, it helps us connect even more, because we have no preconceived notions or judgements about who he is, just an individual through which we may see ourselves. It’s an unflinching story, played out realistically, almost like a frightening documentary about how to survive when your boat hits a wayward shipping container. Though apparently only thirty-two pages in length, the screenplay is far from simple in nature. The man’s journey must be shaped by each event specifically, with each passing storm and subsequent repair, each attempt to communicate, and the additional perils of being lost at sea taking it’s toll. Everything must add up, must continue to push him until the breaking point where everything is, in fact, lost. Additionally easy to dismiss is the behind the camera work by director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco. DeMarco alternately creates a sense of claustrophobia in the crammed quarters of the yacht and a sense of endless vastness in the open sea. There’s no flashy, fantastic colors as there were in 2012’s Life of Pi. It’s stark, harsh contrast, where Redford’s face is as intriguing of a landscape as the restless ocean. There’s also masterful collaboration between the camera and the production design department, especially during the below deck catastrophes as the yacht is tossed by both tempest-like storms. Unfortunately for all it’s technical prowess, the only Oscar nomination the film managed to gain was one for Sound Editing, though it’s more than well deserved. Each lurch of the boat, trickle or rush of water, and lap of the waves is as offsetting and uncomfortable as the rumble of the impending storm on the horizon. It’s all held together by Chandor’s orchestration, proving he’s as adept at directing a single performer through intimate moments and minimal dialogue as he is at managing large ensembles with complex dialogue.
If you’re to single out one element other than Redford’s performance, it has to be the limited, but beautifully realized, Golden Globe winning original score. Sometimes popular musicians are able to create the most surprisingly affecting compositions for film, and such is the case with Alex Ebert’s (frontman of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros) simple, moving score for All Is Lost. I hadn’t seen the film prior to watching the Globes, so when I settled down to watch it, I was expecting something magnificent. I came off a little underwhelmed, but it’s most likely because it was used in such sparse, precise amounts. Having gone back and listened to the soundtrack, it’s easy to recognize it’s a true masterwork of beauty and simplicity. Some of the sounds are so subtle that they blend into the general soundscape of the film itself, while others are evocative of whale calls and other sounds native to the sea. On the more instrumental side, the use of particular instruments, as well as whistling, suggest not only a connection to Ebert’s Edward Sharpe work, but also feel like an homage to some of Morricone’s best scores. It’s ethereal at times, nostalgic at others, and occasionally reflective and meditative. It does not seek to manipulate, but rather to compliment the themes and tones central to the character and film, as well as create new ones. Ebert also wrote an affecting original song, “Amen”, that closes the film, beautifully summing up its final moments, as well as the film as a whole. It’s a shame both score and song failed to register with the Academy, because they are among 2013’s best created for film. The complete score is only forty-five minutes in length, and can be easily found on youtube. I recommend giving it a thorough listen.
As I’ve glanced over the film’s promotional material recently, i’ve noticed the tagline featured on the poster: Never Give Up. Although it’s arguably cliche and formulaic, you’d be hard pressed to find a tagline that sums up a film about the survival and perseverance of the human spirit so simply. Yet for such a simple statement, it’s anything but simple in execution. In any struggle, it’s easier to let go than it is to power through. The fact that Redford’s character is such a blank canvas allows us to project ourselves and our own challenges upon him, giving us a chance to share this journey with him, even vicariously as him. I believe it was Redford himself who commented in an interview that the ocean can be both startlingly beautiful and relentlessly destructive. The same could be said about life in general. Life has the potential for great beauty as well vast destruction. It’s the man against the unpredictable forces of nature, and it’s you against the unpredictable world. With each new day, each new event, there’s always a new challenge. At times in my own life, i’ve buckled under what has seemed like the weight of too many problems, or too many things going the way I wish they hadn’t. At those points in our lives, we are given that choice: give up or continue on. With each new setback, we see the dilemma in Redford’s eyes as he wrestles through that choice. As each new burden is added, each new force of nature dashes against him, the spark and will to live is slowly chiseled away from his increasingly fragile frame. The choices are harder to make, and the challenges more difficult to overcome. That’s what makes one of his final moments in the film, sending off a message in a bottle, so deeply moving. Since the text of the message has already been revealed, we know it’s contents. It’s simultaneously a last plea for help and an acknowledgement of letting go.
Though I would agree with the marketing team’s choice of tagline, I believe it is missing one word: Hope. Never Give Up Hope. The ability to hope is one I believe is as powerful as our will to survive. Without hope, what need, what desire to live do we have? If there is no hope for better things to come, why go on living? Why stick it out until the end if there is no promise of change for the greater? Our current world is plagued by so many issues, the challenges of our everyday lives seem minuscule in comparison. I’ve witnessed young people, when faced with such knowledge, become defeated, asking how people, how the world can possibly change in the face of such challenges. But I’ve also witnessed young people, when faced with the same knowledge, strive to find ways in which they can work for change, because they believe, they hope that people and the world have the potential to overcome such changes with compassion. I believe that true perseverance, true change is created in environments and communities that foster hope and compassion. It is the actions of many, not one, that truly shape our environments, our communities, and our world, that help us survive. Sometimes, it’s so easy for us to internalize our conflicts, and to try and face our challenges alone, we can forget the individuals and community around us. Perhaps it’s an independent, pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-muscle-on mentality instilled in our minds by our culture and society. Maybe it’s our refusal to be labeled a quitter if we give up. But, is it giving up that’s the only other option? Isn’t the challenge sometimes to realize that you can’t possibly face this on your own? Admitting you need help is part of overcoming a challenge. Surviving on your own will and desire is a battle. Surviving with the aid of others is a taxing, but shared, journey. As human beings, we are interdependent. We rely on each other to survive. We have the ability to aid others in their challenges and survival through empathy and compassion, just as we have the ability to ask for and accept it. That last moment in All Is Lost isn’t about him giving up, it’s about recognizing he can no longer continue on this journey on his own. That final shot is so much richer and deeper through that lens. I did overcome that significant personal challenge last year, but not through my own endurance. What saved me from my own personal depths was the willingness of those around me, those who cared for me, to extend that helping hand, and my eventual acceptance of it. They recognized in me a struggle beyond my own ability to cope with, someone in desperate need of help and compassion, and I recognized I didn’t have to face it alone. Their willingness to aid me in my hour of need instilled a hope in me that previously had been absent. Without it, I doubt I could have shaken my disappointment in myself. We all have the ability to extend that hand, to instill hope in someone who needs it, and we also have the ability to recognize it and accept it. We have the ability to be compassionate, to be empathetic, but also to willingly share our burdens and challenges with those willing to take them on with us together. We have the ability to help collective shape and change the lives of each other and the world. That’s what makes us human. That’s how we persevere. That’s how we survive.