I am not a sailor. On my first sailing expedition, the captain abandoned ship and I was saved by the Coast Guard. Nevertheless, I was eager to see J.C. Chandor's new film about a solo sailor facing his mortality -- All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford. I was not disappointed. Given Redford's age, 77, and the physical challenges of portraying a man caught in a storm at sea, he is to be admired just for taking on the role. In fact, he has never given a more exacting and profound performance.
But the film is not just an adventure story, not just "man against nature." It is the story of Everyman, every human being who comes to the end of life and is moved to reflect upon what that life has meant. The protagonist and only character is not named. He is a man of good sense, physical strength, and great resourcefulness. He does not talk -- he considers, he decides, he acts, fully present to the moment. We see him patching the hole in his boat, righting his overturned life raft, learning how to navigate by sexton and sun.
But like us, The Man is vulnerable to forces beyond his understanding and control. He endures injury, thirst, and bone-numbing fatigue. His raft bobs about helplessly, a veritable dot on an endless sea. Radically alone, he moves inexorably toward his fate. But he refuses to give up. Therein lies his heroic nature, and the tragic sensibility of the film.
The Man does everything right. He repairs the hole in his damaged craft, he climbs the mast to restore power to his radio, he even figures out how to desalinate seawater. He sends up flares to attract passing cargo ships, yelling out in despair, "I'm here! I'm here." It is the plaintive cry of each human being to the universe, "I exist!" However, as poet Stephen Crane so tautly put it, "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation." The ships move by, ignoring The Man. The great Mystery is silent.
When the end seems inescapable, The Man stops his anxious striving. He writes a letter of regret and apology: "I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't." To the director's credit, he gives no back story. We do not know The Man's specific failures and regrets -- his letter is directed to no spouse or child or friend.
He seems to be a decent man of strong character, a trustworthy man. But like all of us, he has his blunders and betrayals. We do know that he wishes he had been more faithful to these unnamed others, and he wants them to know that he has done his best. He closes his letter, "I fought to the end. I'm not sure what that's worth. But I know that I did." In a gesture of futility, he seals the letter in a jar and drops the jar into the vast and indifferent sea. He understands that the chances of anyone's finding this letter are nil, but he must try to say goodbye and to explain his life and his choices to those he loves.
Having run out of options, The Man can no longer deny his mortality. The task of each of us is to cope with this dilemma. Who is the "I" that demands an answer? Perhaps we are simply like a single wave on the ocean, rising for the moment, only to disappear in the larger consciousness of Being itself.
"All Is Lost" is reminiscent of other "man against nature" classics. It has something in common with the determinism of Jack London in his short story, "To Light a Fire." In this story the protagonist is in a snowy setting far North, trying to light a fire so he won't freeze to death. Like The Man in our film, he is alone, is resourceful, he does everything right -- except using his last match to light a fire under the snow-filled branches of a tree. The snow melts of course and puts out his fire. The story ends. London offers no redemption or hope. The protagonist is Everyman, doomed by fate, an insect crushed by the careless boot of an indifferent God.
And of course All Is Lost will often be compared to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Both show an older man coping courageously with the dangers and the disappointments of the ravaging sea. In Hemingway's book the protagonist is a humble fisherman in a small boat. He goes after the big one and makes the catch with great difficulty, only to have his fish eaten by sharks. Bringing back the fish is not the point, we understand, but rather the heroic nature of the journey, which lends him dignity and honor, a similar theme in All Is Lost. But in his conclusion, Chandor takes one step more, which moves his film from a humanist statement to a profoundly theological one.
The end of the film (attention: spoiler!) will be long discussed, for it is both highly suggestive and yet inconclusive. Again, this choice is the mark of a director who is creating art and not mere entertainment. The end is a kind of dream sequence which conclusively departs from the concrete reality of the rest of the film. As The Man surrenders his life, he is not thrashing about like one who is drowning -- he simply sinks slowly under the waves. Then he sees a light above him and swims eagerly toward it. A hand reaches down from the light, and the screen goes dark. Is The Man literally being saved, as all the audience members are hoping? Or is he having a pathetic last fantasy that he will be rescued? Is he having a near-death experience, which has been described by many as a journey to the Light? Or is he dying, with the Light guiding his way to the ultimate source of Love? You decide.
At the end of life, what do we find has true significance? What we have achieved, whom we have conquered, fades in importance. What gives meaning to our days is precisely Our Man's fervent desire to be true, to be kind, to love. We know -- all of us -- that we have failed to some degree, we have missed the mark. But we want those we leave behind to know that we did our best.
Marilyn Sewell is the subject of a documentary film, "Raw Faith," now available on Netflix.