I am a huge fan of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a work of great formal achievement and narrative strength. It was hard for me to believe that a commercial director could produce such a polished film so early in his motion picture career.

The earlier film feels like a much more mature work for this writer-director than its follow-up, All Is Lost.

For me while watching it, I felt as I do when watching other directors’ “can I do that” films framed as exercises in form – what Hitchcock did in Rope, for example, or in Lifeboat without the interplay among the characters (and without the clever before and after weight loss ad cameo floating by the boat).

All Is Lost plays out like a film school assignment. Your charge: take a single actor and a single location and tell a story without using dialogue. What emerges here is well-crafted, certainly far above the level of a student film, but there isn’t enough “there” there for me to consider this an exceptional or particularly memorable movie.

And, bits feel clichéd. I waited for the storms. I waited for the sharks. I waited for the near miss with a would-be rescue boat. Predictably, these things come along. Please, don’t tell me this is a spoiler. In All Is Lost, the “what” is much less important than the “how,” and I haven’t taken that away from you.

My biggest problem with the film is something that never happens. Aside from Robert Redford’s craggy good looks and convincing abilities as a sailor and problem-solver, there is never a sense in the film of who this nameless man is beyond the external skill-sets he possesses.

I want some inkling of his interiority. In fact, I need that information to form a connection with him.

Three years ago I dragged myself to see 127 Hours because I like director Danny Boyle’s work even though this story seemed doomed to disengage me. A man is trapped under a rock in a canyon for 127 hours? I mean, it’s a true story, but how engaging can it be?

Uh, the movie is pretty darn riveting, as it turns out. I ended up on the edge of my seat even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion. James Franco gives a terrific performance with elements – call them devices if you want – that provide a sense of who he is so that I care deeply and personally about what happens to him.

Watching the utterly convincing Robert Redford, “Our Man,” as he confronts global capitalism and mother nature in a series of predictable challenges is less engaging for me than watching another man trapped underneath a rock because the man in the boat is a total cipher.

As an assignment film, Chandor hits it out of the park. But, as a film that gives me something to grapple with or a film that illuminates something authentic about the human condition or a film that scales formal heights of achievement or even a rollicking bit of entertainment, All Is Lost doesn’t work particularly well for me.

Possible spoiler: I detest the ambiguous ending. The only part of the film open to multiple interpretations of meaning feels as if it is the coda to a different type of piece. The final trajectory should have been down as a matter of fit.

Robert Redford


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