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All is Lost

Gareth Higgins

Directed by J. C. Chandor
Cert 12a, 100 mins

TS Eliot was wrong, at least if you're Robert Redford adrift on a life raft, your beloved yacht consigned to the waves after being struck by the surreal appearance of a freight container full of running shoes. For Bob, Our Man as he is named in the credits of All is Lost, one of the year's best films, the destination is the destination. Chaotic circumstances force him to distil everything important that he knows about sailing, turning desperation into action. Only when he has reached the point of saying out loud (and writing down in a message in a bottle) the title of the movie does he experience hopelessness, and this only then because it's the first time he's been able to pause long enough to feel anything other than survival instinct.

The fact that this moment begins the film, the rest of which is told as flashback, tells us that All is Lost is not going to focus on whether or not he 'makes it' - that the ultimate result of a person's life is not found in massive victories or crushing defeats, but in the mere fact of how we choose to give ourselves to what is, here and now. Ok, fair enough, maybe that means that Eliot was partly right - the journey sometimes is the destination and all that - but too often that poetic injunction is misinterpreted to mean that never standing still is something to strive for. Our Man spends an entire movie investing in the present moment, fixing holes, breathing, navigating by the stars, grateful for an extra minute, scared, but alive.

Redford was Our Man before All is Lost begins, of course - cinema is about death and life and memory, and the memory of Robert Redford, moustachioed and fleeing a bank with Paul Newman, uniformed and breaking Barbara Streisand's heart, and staring at a green light on the end of Gatsby's pier, has earned its place in the iconography of vicarious cinematic desire. He is one of a very few archetypal actors who represent someone the audience wants to be, or to be with, and because of this he has often seemed invincible. All is Lost, therefore, represents a graceful and powerful statement about aging (Our Man is, hard as it may be to believe, as old as the pope), about transcending the shadow warrior ways of the kind of masculinity that dominates populist heroic narratives (in which men prove themselves by killing other men), about ego and globalization (we may question the hubris that leads a man to think he can sail the Indian Ocean alone as much as the questionably ethical commercial structure that leads a container of running shoes to be floating solo too), and ultimately about what it means to live each day as if it were your last. The familiarity of that cliche has enervated it of meaning, so let's try another: how about living each day with respect for the miracle that it is, or if that sounds too pretentious, what about living each day as if you had chosen to be there, and could be conscious of the extraordinary ordinary reality of what is actually there? Water, sky, stars, food, shelter, surprise. Our Man has to contend with a lot, but he's not without beauty.

All is Lost, whose writer-director JC Chandor announces himself as a major talent with this and his debut Margin Call, lingers in the memory as a portrayal of an entire life through a snapshot; like dancing, character is best revealed when you believe no one is watching. Well, the central theme of this film is character; but it should be seen by everyone.