The majority of the dialogue in J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost comes in the first thirty seconds. The only human character, Our Man (Robert Redford) narrates a letter that he doesn’t send until the final act. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.”
This dialogue accomplishes three things. The first is to give the audience a definite knowledge of coming tragedy. We know what will happen immediately and are therefore allowed to concentrate wholly on the events as they occur without any sort of speculation. We know the man’s ship will sink, we know that he will run out of food, and we know that, for a while at least, no one will rescue him; we know that all the tropes of “lost at sea” stories -storms, sharks, chapped lips, and sunburnt skin- will probably make an appearance. What we don’t know is how the man will react or understand each new challenge as it is brought. Rather than focusing on the tension and danger of each new storm, for example, we focus on his character. What does he do and why? What do his face and body tell us? Slowly, he is shown to be exceptionally knowledgeable.
In most movies of the genre, the main character who becomes lost or marooned on a desert island knows as much as or less than the audience about survival. Chuck Noland in Cast Away is a FedEx systems analyst from Memphis, not a former Navy Seal. What he knows about survival is clearly not too much more than those watching the film. In contrast, Redford’s character in All is Lost knows quite a bit more. In the first scene, a metal shipping container, adrift on the ocean, has knocked a hole in the man’s sailboat. Instead of panicking, the man deliberately but calmly detaches the container from his boat and patches the hole. Later, when he finds that his electronic equipment has been ruined, he learns through reading a manual how to plot his course with a sextant. While such expertise is a fairly necessary character trait given the situation (anyone who didn’t know what they were doing likely wouldn’t be sailing alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean), it’s also fairly original and therefore somewhat unexpected. The sense of anticipation typically important to the genre (What danger will the hero face next?) is rendered trivial by the knowledge the letter gives. Combined with a very muted soundtrack (the wind, rain, and thunder are unexpectedly underwhelming and the music is noticeably spare), the significance of the man’s actions are heightened. We notice when he takes an extended look at the cable attaching his raft to his sinking boat before detaching it, and we are allowed time to reflect on the significance of that act. We notice, most importantly, that he is never at a loss for what to do, and we realize, in the end, that it doesn’t do him any good. All his knowledge, he comes to find, simply delays the inevitable.
The second thing the letter accomplishes it to immediately make the audience sympathetic to the man in the story. The letter, read in stoic resignation, gives us a sense of his character. Very few people who are really true, strong, kind, loving, and often right would say that they are, as all those traits generally coincide with a deep humility. We care about the man because he is good, and we want him to survive.
The last, and I think most important effect, is somewhat opaque. It seems at first that the “you” the man writes to must be family members and friends he left behind to go on his unexplained and solitary journey. The man’s name given in the script, however, presents another option. The pronoun used, “our”, is possessive. It denotes ownership. The word “man” could simply be referring to one human being, in this case the one portrayed by Redford. Thus giving the main character the name Our Man implies that the audience and main character are linked. He is on our side, so to speak. But I think “man” should be used in the broader sense. It does not refer to one man, but to all; “man” could be used interchangeably with “humanity”. The link is therefore far more meaningful than originally thought. Our Man in the story is a metaphor for those things that make us human. When viewed in this way, the original “you” also takes on added significance. I don’t believe it refers only to Our Man’s friends and family, although that is certainly true. In a subtle move, the fourth wall is broken. Our Man is writing the letter to the us, and we are brought into the story in an unmistakably personal way. We are meant to care about the man in two ways: as someone we know and care about, a grandfather perhaps, and also as a representation of what we should desire to be, knowledgable and good.
It is only at this point that the end begins to make sense. Our Man is saved only when he loses everything and gives up his life. All his knowledge and inherent goodness account for nothing. The final scene in which he sinks slowly under that water certainly lends itself to the idea of baptism, and I would have a hard time arguing that it was not intentional. The fact that he is fully submerged under water three times, the third time voluntarily giving himself up to die, grants clear intentionality.
All of these elements make for a film that is perhaps more clever than it is profound. It presents an idea of what baptism and salvation are, but not many discerning insights into their nature. The skilled manner in which the soundtrack, the visuals, the order of the script, and Redford’s acting are tightly woven and controlled is certainly impressive. But the payoff doesn’t seem to be worth all the effort. The same point could probably be made in a fifteen minute short film.