Our Man (Robert Redford) is the protagonist and the lone character depicted in J. C. Chandor’s 2013 film “All Is Lost.” Our Man is allegorically every man and woman struggling against the source of life and unforgiving antagonist — the sea. At almost 80 years old, Redford was the ideal choice to portray this vital, alert and capable (but mismatched) solitary sojourner.
The action begins with Our Man resting peacefully on a bunk bed in his 39-foot sailboat (The “Virginia Jean”) 1,700 miles off the coast of Sumatra. We learn nothing about Our Man — no name, no backstory — only what we see and hear. What we see is compelling, frightening and exciting. All we hear is the sounds of the sea, the wind and rain, his boat and virtually no vocalizations. At a moment of fear and near failure Our Man does thunder the “F” word. That’s it — nothing more. Even if you are not a devotee of this expletive, I suspect that you will agree that it perfectly sums up the action of the moment.
Our Man’s peaceful repose is suddenly interrupted — the vessel strikes a rogue floating object — a shipping container which seriously breaches his boat amidships. Seawater rushes into the cabin soaking the communications gear. The breach, while serious, is not immediately fatal to the vessel. The sea is calm; as is Our Man. Vital charts and other materials are moved from harm’s way and the waterlogged radio transferred to dry climes. The boat is separated from the container and Our Man begins temporary repairs to his wounded craft. With minimal materials, and great skill, a patch is fashioned, the cabin drained and semi-normal functionality restored. Redford is convincing as a skilled and cool-headed mariner.
The time of calm and manageable waters is short-lived. The Virginia Jean and Our Man are put to the test by strong winds, rain and monster seas. While the boat is equipped with emergency gear, the radio cannot be revived, leaving Our Man to the whims of the sea in a seriously damaged and deteriorating vessel. The Virginia Jean’s inflatable life raft functions as dinghy as Our Man transfers food and survival gear in anticipation of its inevitable use as an escape craft. The Virginia Jean is battered by storm-tossed seas and turns turtle with Our Man board.
“All is Lost” transitions from a story of pressurized survival maneuvers to a metaphor about man versus the indifferent world of commerce. Our Man watches as his yacht finally disappears into the depths. He is now simply an uncontrollable object floating unnoticed on an indifferent sea. While scuttled by a bit of detritus of commerce (the container), Our Man must now look to possible rescue by a commercial vessel that may cross his path. Through use of a sextant Our Man determines that he is about to cross an Indian Ocean shipping lane. On two occasions, large ships (one, ironically, is a gigantic container ship), pass his life boat without seeing him. The commercial world, responsible for the wayward container that put Our Man in this perilous position, fails to rescue him.
Food and water run dangerously low as Our Man’s sequestration approaches its eighth and final day. His estimable skills have taken him far but he is on his own and unseen by the world that surrounds but does not support him. Our Man is little more than a bit of flotsam and jetsam — not unlike the container that put him in this quandary.
“All is Lost” ends on a curious note that I will not discuss. Your guess will be as good as mine when it comes to the meaning of the opaque action which ends the story. While not as stunning a film as “The Life of Pi” (2012), “All is Lost” successfully expresses the solitary reality of being “lost” at sea — the primordial source of life.
Bernard A. Karshmer is a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is a past chair of the Denver Film Society and International Film Festival and currently chairs the Denver County Cultural Council.