By Armond White
One of the major Academy Award bloopers occurred in 1974 when Robert Redford was nominated Best Actor for The Sting and not The Way We Were (both were released in 1973). He seemed miscast and distant in the former but movie-star idolized and emotionally committed in the latter. But maybe the secret to Redford’s appeal for the past 50 years has to do with distance—his smug reticence passed for strong-silent-integrity whether playing gay in Inside Daisy Clover, a clueless politician in The Candidate, a reluctant pitchman in The Electric Horseman, a mismatched love object in The Way We Were. And now, playing distant in All Is Lost—portraying a nameless man stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean, uttering no more than two words for the entire running time–seems likely to finally get Redford his Best Actor Oscar.
Other than that, All Is Lost has no meaning. You can only sell this movie, attempt to justify it, by yelling “Oscar!” at it. It has no other purpose. Writer-director J.C. Chandor attempts middle-brow existentialism and apparently hits the right, obvious keys to make critics curtsy, but other than uninteresting clichés, Chandor gives little to go on. His dull subtlety suits his lead’s uncommunicativeness. Redford often seems to think himself too smart to be a movie star (that was the fascinating irony of his glamorous self-delusion in Inside Daisy Clover—perhaps the key performance of his career) so the All Is Lost stoic is convincing for his closed-off nature.
Problem is, Chandor’s mildly competent filmmaking is also closed-off. Though set outdoors (it’s tempting to say “at-sea”), this is actually an interior concept—watching Redford go through the mental and physical efforts of survival (patching up his yacht damaged by a floating cargo box, gathering his life raft and supplies, reading a sextant and charting his course). But Redford’s withholding manner doesn’t unfold this man’s insides: His pantomime (if that’s what you call this mostly silent performance) doesn’t convey thinking—something an actor like Jean-Louis Trintingnant does masterfully.
Chandor’s own reserved-caginess suggests that he thinks he’s doing something deeper than an action movie. Not a modest craftsman like John Sturges directing Spencer Tracy in the film version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Chandor’s a Paul Thomas Anderson wannabe. He plants mysteries: A message-in-a-bottle apology (“I tried to be true, strong, kind but I wasn’t”); third-finger rings on both left and right hands (inscrutable sexual identity); no Emergency Locator Transmitter onboard (incompetence or agnosticism?). The cynical title suggests inchoate nihilism that turns sentimental—typical of Redford’s political movies. (Dig that destructive cargo box spilling-out sneakers, a damning comment on global Capitalism.)
It would take a director like David Lean to validate this pretense with an eye for nature—the horizon, clouds, climate–that conveyed mankind’s experience in the elements, facing the ineffable. Chandor lacks the spatial, phenomenological skills and visual imagination to lift his conceit into significance. And Redford, typically, immodestly deflects “significance.” Critics crowding the dinghy for this very minor film indicates real ignorance about the genre of physical and psychological cinema that Lean excelled at and was apparent in this year’s uphyped Kon-Tiki by the gifted team Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg. All is Oscar bait.
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