The camera scans a shipwrecked yacht and we hear the confession of a man at the end of his rope. He accepts responsibility, asks forgiveness, and utters the sad and crushing lines: "I'm sorry. I tried." He seems to have made peace with his fate concluding that "All is lost here except for body and soul."
We swing back eight days earlier to see this individual, whom the credits identify simply as "Our Man" (Robert Redford), waking alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean on his 39-foot Cal yacht named Virginia Jean. Water is pouring in through a gash in the side of the boat after a collision with a rogue shipping container. He comes up with a way to get his yacht away from the container away as it leaks running shoes into the ocean.
Our Man is not pleased when he discovers that his radio is waterlogged and his communications gear compromised. To try to fix it, he climbs the mast and after completing the task sees that a mammoth storm is heading his way. He has no choice but to sail into the storm which tosses him and his boat around. His body is battered by the wind and the water, but he emerges from the nightmare with only a cut on his forehead.
Despite the feelings of puzzlement about his bad luck, Our Man has the foresight to realize that he will have to leave his beloved Virginia Jean and take refuge in a rescue craft. He gathers his meager supply of canned food, a large container of fresh water, and a few other odds and ends. He is smart enough to know that his only hope for survival is to use his sextant and nautical maps to get to a shipping lane where he can signal for help. But with the sun burning his skin, his water rations compromised, and sharks circling beneath his precarious raft, Our Man grows increasingly distressed and screams out a four-letter word in anger at his plight. His distress at having his flares ignored by passing container ships is a telling commentary on a world where computers and not humans handle so many tasks. Isn't there any place left for the strong, silent hero who goes his own way?
Writer and director J. C. Chandor has created one of the most chilling films of the year with All Is Lost. From start to finish, it is an immersive drama that puts us in the shoes of the resourceful sailor who is at home on the sea and skillful enough to handle the initial challenges and setbacks which come his way. We sense by his ring, his watch, and his demeanor that Our Man is a well-to-do fellow who is used to handling things effectively and efficiently. But the cumulative impact of the catastrophes takes its toll on him.
We bring to this drama vivid memories of Robert Redford as the handsome movie star who often has played the archetypal cowboy — standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever shows up. We think of this actor's stunning portrait in Jeremiah Johnson (1972) where he takes to the mountains in 1825, a pilgrim on his way to learn the secrets of the land and the pleasures of a self-made life. That film is a hymn to individualism and an ode to the American belief in escape as freedom. In All Is Lost, we watch Redford's character closely to see how he is handling things since he doesn't talk to himself and there is no voice-over to express what he is feeling. We cheer him on as the cowboy hero who can escape death and triumph over any and all threats to his life.
Resilience is the art of bouncing back from the tragedies, setbacks, and disappointments that come our way. Our Man is a master of resilience and improvisation as he struggles to stay alive in a losing situation which wears down both his body and his spirit. J. C. Chandor has said in interviews that each member of the audience will be able to create their own response to the end of the drama. We salute him for creating a substantive and gripping work of art that compels us to confront death and our fears of dying alone.
The early Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw death as a companion who is always with us. They knew that living our life from the point of view of death was not a capitulation to despair but a wonderful way to clear the mind to approach every moment with delight. Here is an excerpt from Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality by Alan Jones:
"In the desert tradition, death is a companion, a friend. St. Francis of Assisi called death 'sister.' He was a believer of extraordinary power, at home with the desert way of believing. Death, far from being the terror we encounter at the end of our earthly existence, is the companion and friend who walks with us now. Sister Death is with us always. Her shadow marks and influences every moment.
"To live our life from the point of view of our death is not necessarily a capitulation to despair, to withdrawal, to passivity. Rather, it can become the basis for our being and doing in the world. The more we refuse to look at our own death, the more we repress and deny new possibilities for living. We are all going to die, and our life is a movement to that sure end. Believers find that meditation on this simple fact has a wonderful way of clearing the mind! It enables them to live every single moment with new appreciation and delight. When I say to myself, 'This moment may be my last,' I am able to see the world with new eyes."
And for a Buddhist perspective on death, here's an excerpt from Living in the Light of Death: The Art of Being Truly Alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy:
"I keep various mementos around to remind me of the same thing. One is the skull of a dead lama. Another is a set of beads made from the bones of a dead lama. It was taken from the remains of a corpse after what is called a sky burial, in which vultures are allowed to consume a corpse as a last act of compassion. And the beads that Tara Tulku Rinpoche fingered as he said those words were also made of bone. Beads made of human or animal bones serve as a reminder of how we're all going to end up.
"People often ask why we would want to be reminded. It's bad enough that we have to die: Why remind ourselves of that fact all the time? The Pali word anusaya refers to the latent tendencies that we all have, one of which is our fear of death. It lives in our consciousness somewhere and weighs us down, actually having quite a bit of influence on us, as it shows up in smaller, more tangible fears. It darkens our lives. It is a chronic form of anxiety.
"Anusaya is constantly fed by things we see and hear: when someone we know dies, or when we see a dead animal in the street, or when we hear that a friend has grown seriously ill or see a friend after some time and notice that he has aged. The way of Buddhist practice is to flush out these fears, to open the doors and windows and let in some fresh air, to stop talking about these matters in a whisper, repressing and denying them. It's exhausting to live that way: it requires a huge amount of energy to hold that kind of fear down. And it doesn't ultimately work."
Special features on the DVD include the filmmaker commentary; "Preparing for the storm" featurette; "Big film, small film" featurette; 3 vignettes: "The story," "The filmmaker: J.C. Chandor" and the "The actor: Robert Redford"; and "The sound of All is Lost" featurette.
Screened at The 51st New York Film Festival, October 2013.