Redford in ‘All Is Lost’: a modern day Sisyphus
The other night I found myself adrift with Robert Redford somewhere in the Indian Ocean, catching up with All Is Lost, the film written and directed by JC Chandor about a lone mariner’s attempts to keep his stricken yacht afloat after it has collided with a shipping container and is holed at the waterline.
I hadn’t been particularly drawn to the film when it was first reviewed, but my attention was caught recently by references to the film in an article by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian after the disappearance of flight MH370 that fell from the sky somewhere in the same ocean. He compared the aircraft’s black box to the brief message that begins, ‘All is lost…’ which Robert Redford’s sailor scrawls, puts in a bottle and tosses overboard. ‘All may be lost’, Dyer writes, ‘ but the hope is that this hand-scrawled version of the black box, will be found’.
All Is Lost must be one of the most truly cinematic films ever produced. Apart from the few spoken words of his last despairing message spoken by Redford at the introduction, there is virtually no dialogue, apart from an anguished ‘Fuuuuuck’, uttered by Redford at a desperate moment in the proceedings. The rest is Redford’s superb acting, stunning cinematography, sound – and the silence of a lone sailor adrift on the wide ocean.
The film’s writer and director, JC Chandor, steers well clear of the conventions of the disaster movie genre. Who is this sailor? Where does he come from? Chandor never tells us: there is no backstory of family or previous life. All we see is an elderly man fighting to stay alive, his actions defined solely by the crisis that has afflicted him.
Does Chandor have an environmental message about humanity beleaguered on the planet we have desecrated? I don’t know – probably not. The thought only occurs because the film pivots on a random event in which Redford’s sailor encounters solid evidence of globalization and the detritus it leaves in its wake. The sailor wakes one morning to find that his yacht has been pierced by a container full of trainers, one corner of the metal monstrosity embedded in the gashed fibreglass hull. The sea is awash with trainers that pour from the container like blood from a wound.
I’m currently reading Jean Sprackland’s book Strands, and coincidentally, I saw All Is Lost on the same day that I read the chapter in which she documents all the plastic that she finds washed up on the beach. She goes on to talk about the ubiquitousness of waste in the oceans and the phenomenon of the North Pacific Gyre:
The Gyre has become home to something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic stew of suspended plastic and other human debris. [… ] Estimates put the garbage patch at a hundred million tons, and it is aid by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas.
Sprackland speaks, too, of a famous cargo of plastic ducks and other bath toys that spilled from a container ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992. A scientist, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, has used observations of where the toys are washed ashore to track the currents and tidal systems that can transport human debris like those trainers in All Is Lost right round the world.
Seabirds are particularly at risk once sea-borne plastic waste enters the food chain, and this reminds Sprackland of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ which can be read as a prophecy, or warning, of the consequences of interfering with the natural order. That reminded me of a recent reworking of the poem by Nick Hayes as a graphic poem, The Rime of the Modern Mariner. The story his modern mariner recounts is one of environmental doom. After killing an albatross and being forced to wear it around his neck, his ship hits the North Pacific gyre, that huge collection of plastics and chemical sludge:
Swathes of polystyrene
Bobbed with tonnes of neoprene
And polymethyl methacrylate
Stretched across the scene
Tupperware and bottletops
Bottled bleach and tyres
The detritus of a careless kind
a scattered funeral pyre.
A cargo of trainers…
Back on board Redford’s yacht, water has gushed in and shorted out all power on the vessel, eliminating all contact with the rest of the world. Now the camera follows every desperate move Redford makes to try to keep his vessel afloat: the ingenious method he uses to dislodge the cargo container, the slow and methodical patching of the jagged tear in the hull. He bails out water, makes careful repairs, teaches himself how to check coordinates with a map and sextant.
Later a terrific storm blows in, sheers off the yacht’s mast and reopens the gash in her hull. The sailor is knocked into open water and sustains a cut to his scalp. He realises that his one hope is to chart a course towards the shipping lanes from where the malignant container probably came. In the darkness, with the storm still raging and his boat sinking, the sailor inflates his life raft and cuts the cord. He watches, battered and sodden, as the yacht goes down, leaving no trace.
Every aspect of All Is Lost’s production – from the murmuring musical score to the stunning cinematography – make this pure cinema: just a story told through movement and sound. But above all this is a tour de force by Redford. He throws himself into a physically punishing role with total commitment and the understanding of one who is a sailor (he needs to: he’s on screen from beginning to end). If Robert Redford chose never to make another film, I reckon All Is Lost would be considered a truly fitting achievement to cap his career. As the Washington Post review observed:
At a time when his 70-something colleagues are trying desperately to prove they’re still hip, macho and please-God relevant, he quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.
Watching all his tribulations, Redford’s sailor becomes a modern day Sisyphus, rolling his boulder uphill day after day, cursing the toll it takes on his body, but reaching inside himself for the resolve to carry on. In his piece for the Guardian, Geoff Dyer has an interesting take on this Sisyphus parallel, noting that Camus insisted that we must imagine Sisyphus ‘happy’. Dyer suggests that Redford’s lost sailor is in his element:
This is what he came to sea for. And it would be wrong, as we hear those fateful words, ‘All is lost’, to take this as an admission of regret. It would be just as accurate to say that he has achieved his destination.
The yacht goes down
Several reviewers have noted that All Is Lost explores themes remarkably similar to those in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The crisis of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, spinning in a crippled craft in space, is even brought about in the same way: by a surreal onslaught of debris.
In an interview with The National, director JC Chandor observed that when everything is lost and a person is forced to confront themselves in extremis, ‘the big existential questions become harder to avoid. What are the things that make life worth living and give it value? Why battle on when death is inevitable?’ He said:
The only thing that everyone on planet Earth has absolutely in common with one another is that we are all going to die. All Is Lost is about a guy coming to grips with his mortality, which is something everybody is going to go through, sooner or later.
In the Observer Xan Brooks wrote:
There is no journey towards redemption and no cosy life lesson lying in wait at the end. There’s just the sea and the sky and the struggle to survive. Chandor’s ironclad minimalism has you gasping for air.
But, as Geoff Dyer noted in his piece, the ending (I won’t divulge it) might suggest redemption, some form of ‘religious salvation’. Maybe. I’m thankful to Dyer, though, for opening my eyes to a poem with which I was unfamiliar. Of the film’s ending, he writes:
It is also strangely reminiscent of DH Lawrence’s great long poem ‘The Ship of Death‘. Few people can have lived their lives with such a consciousness of death as Lawrence – though this often manifested itself as a wilful refusal to attribute his ill-health to the tuberculosis that would kill him. […] But in the posthumously published poem he confronted his death directly, through the image of a boat sailing slowly into deeper and deeper darkness until it is completely enveloped by it:
And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
she is gone.
It is the end, it is oblivion.
Few pieces of writing bring the reader this close to the incommunicable experience of death, of non-existence. The end is as uncompromising and absolute as the verdict that flight MH370 went into the water, that there are no survivors. But the poem is not at an end. It continues:
And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.
Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.
As I write this, hundreds of children are missing after Wednesday’s ferry accident off the coast of South Korea. For the grieving parents it must seem as if all is lost
And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,