ALL IS LOST (2013, J.C. Chandor)
Chandor’s virtually wordless follow-up to his talky debut MARGIN CALL pushed all of my existentialist buttons. As a wide-eyed teenager in college, I became a philosophy major almost exclusively because of existentialism, and devoured the texts of Camus, Sartre, Wright, and Nietzsche. That kid would have absolutely loved ALL IS LOST, and thankfully, though I am older and not any wiser, this guy loves it too.
There’s not a more textbook situation to explore the philosophy of existence preceding essence than showing a guy we know nothing about waking up alone in the middle of the sea, discovering that his sailboat has been the victim of a random accident. They say the saddest and shortest story ever written is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (It’s been attributed to Hemingway but probably dates back earlier). The cargo crate that pokes a hole into Redford’s boat is filled with baby shoes that will never be worn, and after that incident, Redford is both forced to do what it takes to survive against nature and ultimately plunged into despair. We learn everything we need to know about him through action — because action is all there is in this movie (and, by extension, in life — according to the aforementioned philosophy). The only dialogue is the brief voiceover narration of a letter he is writing, a distress call on the radio, some pointless shouts of “Here!” and one brilliant scream of “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” As a bizarro-world GRAVITY, ALL IS LOST gives us no backstory because there isn’t one to have. We’re seeing a life created, not a life midway through.
Where some films would take this premise and dip into Christianity or Hinduism (LIFE OF PI), or perhaps Emersonian Transcendentalism (anything by Malick), Chandor goes full-on Camus with the hostile indifference of nature’s storms, sharks surviving off the fish Redford wants, the absurdity of the baby-shoes crate, and the despair of contaminated water, flares going ignored, and the vast expanse of a quiet, merciless ocean. [The Indian Ocean might as well be Van Sant’s desert from GERRY]. Yet Redford faces these challenges with the practical necessity of a seasoned yachtsman (his age and location indicate this ain’t his first sailing trip) and moments like his insistence on shaving give him a specific humanity. There’s no moral judgment in this film because morality doesn’t exist — it isn’t immoral in a villainous or message-y way; it’s amoral by philosophy. Right and wrong are foreign concepts when there is only action. And perhaps the most beautiful and emotionally powerful statement is that (I’ll say it obliquely) despite the fact that we live and die alone, we cannot achieve survival without other people. It’s a humanism that can choke up even the surliest cynic.