All is Lost: a film of few words

Robert Redford in All is Lost (2013)
Robert Redford in All is Lost (2013)

You hate bad dialogue, I hate bad dialogue. And clunky, needless expository dialogue is the worst: the most heinous crime in sound cinema. A good rule of thumb for screenwriters would be to look at each line they want their actors to spout and say: “Would this be an absolutely essential intertitle?” Without all those words, actors have to tell the story physically, by acting, rather than describing: they say a picture tells a thousand words after all. With 24 frames a second, who needs text, by that logic?

This is clearly a pet hate of mine – I rarely see a new movie without wanted to take a red pen to the script here and there. So thank heavens for All is Lost, the tremendous new film from JC Chandor (Margin Call), starring Robert Redford as a sailor lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is the only actor in the film – it’s just him, the boat, the water and a series of catastrophes until the bitter end. And he’s fantastic in it – his nicely grizzled features reacting moment by moment to his impending doom. It’s a physical role for sure, as he tackles the high winds and rolling waves – but for the full Ancient Mariner angst, he needs to capture our sympathies too, and let us know what’s going on behind those famous blue eyes.

You’ll have guessed the twist: as Redford helms the movie solo, there’s no real dialogue at all. I don’t want to spoiler the film, but he speaks a few words; wouldn’t you curse a little, in his deck shoes? For most of the film’s 106-minute running time, however, all you’ll hear is the roar of the ocean, the clattering and cracking of his boat and a hell of a lot of weather. The score, by Alex Ebert, appears only sporadically, and there’s no intrusive internal monologue to break the tension either. So with all that space in which to act, and such a simple story, Redford is free to give an indelible, immense performance that’s a pleasure to watch. Or it would be, if one weren’t so terrified for him.

All is Lost wouldn’t qualify as a silent movie, I know that. In fact its stunning sound design is as Oscar-worthy as Redford’s star turn. But it is a rare sound film that has learned the extraordinary power of silents – and it’s really very special indeed.

All is Lost screens at the London Film Festival on 12, 13 and 14 October 2013, and gets a UK release on 26 December 2013.

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