This blog isn’t supposed to be yet another movie review blog, we go to other blogs ourselves for that kind of thing, but sometimes we feel so stymied by the length restrictions imposed by some of the new social media websites, in this case Netfix and their 2000 character limit, that we feel compelled to publish here what we wish we were able to say over there in the first place. Two thousand characters isn’t much [if you are counting spaces as well], that’s less than about 400 words. It’s difficult to express one decent idea in that few words and two ideas starts to become a parody of editorial excess.
Today’s essay started as a reaction, maybe a negative one, to the Meme Merchants Cinema Society’s recent viewing of the otherwise critically acclaimed 2013 film All is Lost by American screenwriter and director J.C. Chandor [Jeffery McDonald] staring Robert Redford in a tour de force solo performance, which is usually described with some emphasis as being without any dialogue – as if that’s supposed to be an intrinsically good thing.
The elves at Netflix had this to say:
In this harrowing drama — which has no dialogue — a man stranded alone at sea courageously battles a ferocious storm as he struggles to survive.
Pardon me if I disagree with that assessment. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 93% Fresh, which is very good, so I’m wondering where the divergence lies.
What follows is what I wrote and wanted to publish, with some expansion; what I actually managed to publish at Netflix is right at the bottom.
This is your polite warning that what follows is likely to spoil the movie for you by revealing certain aspects of plot, or character that will prevent you from fully enjoying the film. So, now is really the perfect moment, if you haven’t already, to go out and watch All is Lost for yourself and form your own opinion. I hope you enjoy it.
I was offended by the ending. A washed-up and hapless old man is granted a miraculous second-chance at life by J. C. Chandor – that’s the movie in a sentence. Our Man certainly wasn’t any kind of a sailor – a Sir Francis Chichester he was not. He had some rudimentary skills, enough to get himself into trouble but not enough to get himself out again. Our Man exhibited all the traits of someone who does not survive his ordeal, rather than those of the exceptional one who does: a Donald Crowhurst not a Bernard Moitessier or an R. Knox-Johnson. For instance, Our Man was able to put a rudimentary patch on his damaged vessel but had never removed his sextant from it’s shipping carton since the day it was purchased – and didn’t know how to use it. This seems very strange for a man of a generation that predates LORAN much less GPS. This begs some very important questions like: who was Our Man? What was he doing by himself on his dilapidated boat? Where was he coming from? going to? Why should we care?
Answering these questions satisfactorily probably requires some words. In the case of our ‘Lost’ voyage the only real dialogue is the apologia at the opening, which effectively sets the tragic tone for the doomed voyage – but is completely invalidated by the movie’s ending. Our Man remains tongue-tied, or unconvincingly dehydrated, as potential rescuers lumber one by one by and is seems unable to let out a convincing HELP!!! – a time you might expect someone to shout themselves hoarse. Our Man just can’t seem to gather up enough prana to save himself.
This movie has some serious problems of conception and execution, which I lay mostly at Chandor’s feet, though a few may belong with Redford as well. Chandor spent a lot of effort trying to create dramatic moments, and cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini went to lengths to create some dramatic visuals, above and below water, but not enough thought went into creating a completely self-consistent and meaningful story. Too much time spent looking up at the underside of objects and not enough time looking into the mind and soul of Our Man.
Or maybe I’ve got something wrong here.
I’m sure to get strong disagreement from Robert Redford fans, but I found him particularly opaque in this film; what is going on back there in that lumber-room mind?? Since the seventies, filmmakers seem to have developed the contrary idea that the perfect movie is one without any dialogue – the Holy Grail of film making apparently. This concept flies in the face of the reality that of all species on this planet humans are the only ones who use the spoken word in anything remotely like the way we do: with diction, poetic and prosaic. Of course, there is also the whole history of theatre. Consequently when you deny people their words you deny them something very essential in their humanity – freedom of speech. I guess not in Hollywood.
Not that there aren’t exceptions or moment of deep emotional truth that can be transmitted without words. I remember particularly having the experience while watching Bergman’s Cries and Whispers of having the feeling of thirst transmitted sympathetically to me so powerfully by Harriet Anderson that I felt I had to excuse myself from the room to get something to drink – moments before her Agnes herself reached for her off-camera glass of water. That was a real Wow! moment for acting for me, but not so much for Redford this time. I spent most of the movie wondering, “What the hell is he doing?”
This picture could have been a brilliant character study on how one of Life’s botched and bungled faces death when there is no possibility of redeeming any of his mistakes – except with the way he ultimately faces his solitary death. What a great premise. This was not the movie that was made, unfortunately. Instead we got something a bit lumpy and which seemed to be trying to be two different things. In particular this film seems to attempt to be some kind of a stripped to the bone To Build a Fire at Sea and at the same time capture the magical visual richness of Life of Pi – but without the tiger to relate to. Doesn’t work as a Jack London man vs nature story and certainly doesn’t work as an Ang Lee visual allegory either.
That’s the thing, you simply can’t have much of a relationship with nature and the turn of events, at least not in the way you can with any other adversary, even an animal. You need some method to externalize the completeness of the interior experience, unless you have a character that really doesn’t think – the other activity par excellence of human beings.
A real sailor moves through life with a certain energy-saving economy of effort which looks to the outsider like grace and moves with a velocity dictated by necessity. Redford’s Man oscillates between lethargic activity, apathy, and collapse, he shambles throughout. As another Netfix reviewer put it he moves at a uniformly “snail’s pace.” Sailors and survivors also have a plan and are systematic in the way they execute it. They also have their ups and downs, no doubt, but they always get back on their survival plan – those who don’t die. Simple
I’m not going to critique all of the technical mistakes made by Our Man in how he handled his boat and his emergencies, other sailors have done that already. What I will do is [correctly] label them for what they represent in terms of the character – incompetence. Much can be said about how fatigue or exhaustion can affect a person’s judgement and performance, very true, but Our Man makes the same kinds mistakes throughout the film, and his propensity for acting without having a plan seems to be one of his defining characteristics.
I’m not quite sure what the discrepancy is between my opinion of this film and other critics opinions. Robert Redford is a great actor, one of the best of his generation without doubt, but is it that other critics are mistaking the greatness of the actor for the greatness of the character – or the part? [The part being a bit more abstract: the character as written but not yet portrayed] There is the real possibility that a great deal of my beef with Our Man has less to do with Mr. Redford’s technique or portrayal of his character, than other people insisting on seeing a character who wasn’t the one actually portrayed by Mr. Redford.
Mr. Redford may actually be doing his best to do a round portrayal of a flat man.
When I see Our Man as he moves through the world I see I an old man at that stage of life where he is looking backwards at his life – with many regrets – maybe is running away from something or somebody, and has placed himself in a situation where he really isn’t competent to belong, on the open ocean by himself. Our man is someone who has been living and is continuing to function without enough of a plan to stay survive. Our Man is the kind of guy who when the moment of truth arrives still hasn’t informed himself about how to operate the pyrotechnic signaling devices he needs to employ to signal the ship trundling by him – we see him actually trying to read the instruction label as the ship goes by – and has chosen the wrong one to use anyway. Something is up with this set of behaviors. Unfortunately since we are not privy to the contents of Our Man’s mind, its kind of a guess as to what is really going on. Chandor seems to decided strongly on an aesthetic over effectiveness here. Well, it had its effect on my anyway.
What I found particularly telling was how little time we actually see our man actually in command of his vessel. Most of the time we see him hunkered down, doing little or nothing, diddling ineffectually at repairs, or just letting things go. There is the time to lie hove-to to the storm, of course, but you still have to know how to execute that maneuver properly – if you want to live. None of this performance matches my conception of a sailor courageously battling anything, what it comes across as is a kind of plottedness of narrative.
From about minute five of this movie I was bravely battling the wait to see if Our Man would win his battle over his regrets – I had that expectation smashed pretty badly.
Ok, this is that part where I get mad at J.C. Chandor.
I have never felt so cheaply used by a director for purely dramatic effect. Our Man died at the end! At the end he whimped out, gave up, and drowned – fine, if that’s the way you want to end it – tragic at several levels. [Tragedy is a great way to end a movie, by the way, probably the most effective] We watched as he slipped beneath the surface and drifted slowly down into the deep for half a minute – dead. We saw the flaming doughnut of his life raft from thirty feet down. Then the rescue boat arrives, the pathos! the tragedy! the irony! It turns out only a flaming life raft burns brightly enough to be seen by rescuers – an alright ending. Then Our Man’s eyes spring open, he sees the rescue boat above him and swims to the surface. NO! NO!! NO!!!! You can’t do that! – except in Hollywood.
I do not buy, not for one minute, that Our Man was still somehow alive because Chandor sold his death too well and used the below-shot of the life raft too often for me to believe otherwise.
I can’t really say about the ending up to that point, except that it did not have the effect that the closing shot of The English Patient had on me – the harrowing of the soul on seeing the recapitulation of the opening shot of Count László de Almásy with Katharine Clifton, asleep, flying over the Sahara in their biplane, but understanding now that she was actually dead. Brilliant.
I can’t print what I’d like to say about how this particular film ends, but I feel like a girl who’s had her date put his hand up her skirt because he thought he was going to give her a good time, instead he gets slapped and pepper sprayed. Chandor’s going to have to do something hugely heroic, like donate a kidney, before he gets a second date with this chick.
The cut for Netflix version of the above:
I was offended by the ending. A hapless old man is granted a miraculous second-chance at life by J.C. Chandor – in a sentence. Our Man wasn’t any kind of a sailor, he had rudimentary skills, enough to get himself into trouble but not enough to get himself out. He had all of the traits of someone who does not survive his ordeal. This begs some very important questions: who was Our Man? What was he doing? Why should I care? This could have been a character study on how a man faces death when there is no possibility of redemption except with the way he faces his death, instead we got a movie that doesn’t work as Man vs Sea and certainly doesn’t work as an Ang Lee allegory. The problems I lay mostly at Chandor’s feet, a few belong to Redford. The only dialogue is the opening ‘apologia’ which sets the tone for the doomed voyage – but is invalidated by the ending. Chandor spent a lot of effort creating dramatic moments, above and below water, but not enough went into creating a self-consistent and meaningful story. Redford’s Man seemed to be particularly opaque, once in a while an idea pops out, but you’re never sure from where. A sailor moves with a certain economy of effort, which looks like grace. Redford’s Man oscillates between apathy, collapse, and activity, he shambles through the entirety. Sailors and survivors have a plan and are systematic in the way they execute it; they have their ups and downs, but they always get back on their plan, those who don’t die.-Spoiler Alert-I have never felt so cheaply USED by a director for purely dramatic effect. Our Man DIED! He whimped out, gave up, and drowned – fine. We watched his body drift down into the deep for half a minute. We saw the flaming donut of his life raft from thirty feet below. THEN we saw the rescue boat arrives. The pathos!! only the flaming life raft was bright enough to be seen-fine. THEN Our Man’s eyes spring open; he sees the rescue boat and swims to the surface. NO! NO! NO!!