Adam Cook’s review published on Letterboxd:
All Is Lost is rather unique in the field of disaster movies as it seems to deliberately avoid the familiar trappings of the sub-genre. Gone is the hysteria and blind panic and gone are the supporting cast destined to snuff it in ever more elaborate ways. Perhaps this is because J.C. Chandor hasn’t really made a disaster movie but rather a minimalist yet deceptively rich story as an old man stoically battles forces beyond his control in the Indian Ocean.
Initially, the film seems in stark contrast to Chandor’s breakout debut, Margin Call - a talky yet relevant drama about the financial collapse. Here the director strips the drama to the core delivering a near-wordless and elemental story of perseverance. Yet this follow-up proves just as timely as he once again explores the powers of modern capitalism, albeit less overtly. Following a collision with a stranded shipping container, a nameless sailor (Robert Redford) must stare mortality in the face when his yacht begins to sink miles from land and any chance of rescue.
The film begins quietly as the film’s nameless protagonist wakes to the sight of a flooded cabin. In most films of its ilk such an image would be the cue for panic and an urgent and bombastic score, yet Redford is calm and resigned, and remains so until the very end. It’s rather shocking to see a character who faces life or death reacting in such a matter of fact manner. He is not always wise in approaching each setback but he is keenly aware that he is the only person that can get him out of the situations he faces.
Although Chandor piles on the peril - after the freak accident the film is a procession of spiralling disasters - they all feel sickeningly believable as poor decisions and the forces of nature conspire against him. So often in disaster films characters are manipulated into situations for cheap thrills and dramatic effect yet here the misfortune feels earned whilst making a greater point than mere survival.
Foregoing a wholly unnecessary backstory, the audience learns little about the stranded protagonist. Even though the film opens with the sailor reciting a letter filled with regret his life before the fateful sea journey is only ever hinted at as the viewer speculatively fills in the missing details. Typically an undefined protagonist would result in an audience struggling to invest in the character yet he becomes a blank canvas, allowing the audience to project themselves into this perilous situation. However, the main reason this blank characterisation works so perfectly is that Chandor has created a film open to a number of interpretations, not least as a fable for our financially uncertain times.
This is not merely a disaster movie, or even a story of mortality and atonement, but also an allegory as an Everyman is battered and left utterly stranded by the forces of capitalism (quite literally in the way the great symbol of global commerce rips into the hull of his yacht). The film is littered with telling symbolism from the way larger fish gather beneath him, devouring those smaller than themselves, to even the way Our Man is voiceless against these powers. Perhaps Chandor didn’t intend each symbolic element but they can regularly be found here even down to the decision to set the story in one of the world’s most important shipping routes.
Robert Redford, forced to carry the film alone, is fantastic. It’s a role devoid of vanity showing one of Hollywood’s great screen icons as an old and mortal man. The film is intensely focused on close-ups of Redford’s weary face as he is tested by the elements. The fact he conveys so much with no words or secondary character (he doesn’t even get a surrogate Wilson-like character to interact with) is incredibly impressive. This intimate and constant focus even creates a strange feeling of claustrophobia despite the vast body of water that surrounds the marooned mariner.
It’s a shame then that the film is unable to maintain its stark naturalism for its duration. Where the opening hour is dominated by the heightened natural sounds of the sea and weather punishing our helpless sailor, the second half gradually succumbs to a more conventional and, come the final act, overbearing score that buries the beauty and subtlety of the film. The ending, although open to multiple interpretations, is rather cheap and disappointing no matter which way it is read. Having come so far with the character it is sad that Chandor decides to close his journey this way.
Barring a few second half wobbles, All Is Lost is a thoughtful and gripping survival story that is ultimately about so much more.