Thursday, December 19, 2013

Squalor: All is Lost

Sometimes I see a movie and I'm really not sure why I'm bothering to see it at all. I tell myself that I'm trying to be open-minded, that people I respect have enjoyed it; and, really, I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised. From the moment I buy the ticket, though, I know the likelihood of the subject matter piquing my interest is slim to none.  All is Lost is one such object.  It's a film fascinating only in its ability to sustain a full-length narrative on a paragraph of dialogue and minimal characterization.  In the way it uses its formal devices, I'm intrigued, but the maritime calamity that ensues feels like a cheap shot, and one that follows a wholly predictable ebb and flow of problems and short-term solutions. It's Life of Pi without the animals and religion, Gravity without the benefit of innovation, Captain Phillips without the Somali pirates, Open Water with less of a shark problem, and so on and so forth.  All is Lost is a wash (pun intended) of repetitive, damp survival scenes and cornball reaction shots that compound and compound until the formalist strengths collapse beneath the improbability and frustrating familiarity of the scenes.  What I'm saying boils down to exactly this: you can call it "commercial avant-garde" all you want, David Denby, but that doesn't change the fact that I've seen single-serving catastrophe worked out before in ways that haven't made me want to roll my coat into a pillow and take a nap.
The most exciting moments of All is Lost, for me, occurred in my own mind as a Maersk line ship is seen at a distance.  In these moments, I imagined how perversely interesting it would be if Robert Redford's unnamed character were rescued by Captain Phillips (only to stumble into further crisis).  I then spent a significant amount of the film's final section imagining the production company clever enough to (within the span of a year) quietly make easter egg-style link-up points in every single one of its cross-genre releases.  Yes, Virginia, this idiocy is what was occupying my mind as Robert Redford sputtered and grimaced and fiddled around with a sextant and made fresh water out of condensation in a tin can.  This is, of course, not an inaccurate synopsis of the film, though one that completely snubs any of the deeper metaphorical readings many are wont to graft onto it.  So, here's the slightly more accurate version: our hero wakes up below deck on his yacht only to find that during his nap, a drifting shipping carton has crashed into his hull and his vessel is taking in water.  The film is entirely devoted to our hero attempting -- stubbornly, tenaciously, determinedly (choose your adverb) -- to stay alive as his weakened craft is pelted with obstacle after obstacle until we are left, quite literally, with just an old man and the sea.  The challenges are practically biblical, the solutions interesting in their boy scout ingenuity, the small inconsistencies are many.

Of course, when we see a film like this that has the benefit of a strong performance by its actor, our ability to root for the underdog, to be drawn into their situation and to, therefore, experience the film as something harrowing often makes the thing hold water (I know. I'm out of control with the puns. I can't stop. They're so damn easy).  Redford is, indeed, pretty decent.  It's a highly physical performance, and he manages to imbue his waspy survivalist as so balanced, so focused and headstrong and determined to live that he is the sort who can sustain the formal conceit of the film. Taking the film's poetic temperature is easy: its verse on life is blunt as hell, and if a 'Victory at Sea' minimalism appeals to you, All is Lost will read as something hypnotic.  For me, the formalist graft just doesn't pay off in the long run, and the transformation of character into symbol requires a few too-many stupid accessories.  The experiment is admirable, the tools too banal.  Where Gravity transforms an impossibly similar situation into a majestic, thrilling spectacle fraught with human psychology, All is Lost is a tedious bore.  Then again, it may be that that mundane, quiet reversal is exactly what you want...

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