A thursday afternoon, late in August, in southwestern Colorado. It has rained and it will rain again. That “it” here, the weather, has a mind of its own, generous but perilous, too, because it can change so fast. The mud is dusky red. The air is thick and sour, like horseradish. Outside the small town, in hay meadows, a man is exercising two black Labrador dogs. They stretch out in the light like race horses before Muybridge had proved the tucking up of legs in animal locomotion, and then they turn over and roll in the damp grass. At two hundred yards you can feel their delight. Will the film we are waiting for be as lyrical and unrestrained?
We are in Telluride, on the first afternoon of its fortieth film festival. The movie is set to start at 3:30, but pass-holders have been arriving since noon to be sure of getting in to see All Is Lost. That’s an odd title for such a mood of expectation. By two o’clock there are four hundred of us in obedient files under white canvas awnings, in case it rains. That’s a kind gesture, but it does build the oppressive warmth. We are waiting to get in to the first ever public screening at the Werner Herzog Theater.
This is a magnificent addition to the Telluride venues, beautifully designed and with one of the best sound systems you will ever hear (thanks to Meyer Sound). But this is Telluride, a town that cannot support ten theaters for more than one long weekend. So the Herzog Theater was once a beat-up hockey rink and it will go back to that status in a few days. But for the moment, this astonishing technological creation is the vision of Julie Huntsinger—she, Tom Luddy, and Gary Meyer are the directors of the Telluride festival. She insisted that the Herzog could be built. She dug up the money and we have come. It is absolutely appropriate that it should be named after Werner Herzog, not just a regular at the festival and its abiding friend, but a man whose mind is filled with wild people as delirious with liberty as any black Labs. Herzog exists for the impossible challenge, and the hope of art at the end of life’s ragged tether. Still, a corner of this new wonderful building should be kept as the Julie Huntsinger Chapel. Arts management needs every bit as much insane resolve as artistic production.
Telluride is founded on the kind of obsession and the defiance of common sense that marks not just Herzog and Huntsinger but the hundreds of us waiting for 3:30. Some call this the best film festival in the world; other festivals are quietly proud to be included in that thought. And yet for forty years Telluride has been a celebration of cinema just as the medium and its world have been faltering, changing, and even dying. This year the festival is dedicated to four people who were held dear at Telluride, but who died in 2013—Les Blank, the documentary filmmaker drawn to music, dreams, and pungent foods; George Gund, benefactor, enthusiast, hockey-mad; Donald Richie, writer and scholar on Japanese cinema; and Roger Ebert, superb popularizer, eternally brave and beloved. Errol Morris’s new film at Telluride, The Unknown Known (about Donald Rumsfeld), is dedicated to Ebert—Rummy is lucky to get in on that act. But the cineastes of the 1970s who created Telluride and made it as grand as the surrounding mountains are passing.
Robert Redford deserves what has never come to him before, an Oscar for best actor.
At three o’clock we are allowed in to the Herzog. For the first time ever, this year at Telluride our passes are scanned. We marvel at the theatre. We greet the festival directors and acknowledge the sponsors. At last the movie begins. All Is Lost will not open until October 18th, so this is less a review than a warning. Very soon, such archaic distinctions will collapse, along with the projection of celluloid and the poetry of dissolves. So I won’t say more (or much more) except that All Is Lost is amazing, deeply moving, and a harking back to an age when the best mainstream films might be the best pictures America made. It is an adventure and an epic with one person. I am warning you that it may win Best Picture, and that its one person, Robert Redford, deserves what has never come to him before, an Oscar for best actor.
He plays a man sailing a yacht single-handed 1,700 nautical miles from Sumatra. He is broken out of sleep one morning; there is water slapping around in his cabin. His yacht has been hit by a rogue container, a sinister rust-red oblong, a hideous moribund Moby, loaded with running shoes that are now leaking into the still Indian Ocean. (How many of these beasts lurk in the oceans?) Far worse, the container has put a wound in the side of the yacht. If ever the sea gives up its stillness, the boat will flood. The sailor’s radio has been destroyed. His cell phone is waterlogged. He says nothing, but he knows the peril.
And because he is Robert Redford, he is seventy-six in the film, which is too old and aching for the buffeting of storms. Moreover, this is an old man, denied any of the photographic kindnesses that have made some of Redford’s films too fussy. We never know why this man is far south in the Indian Ocean and 1,700 miles from the closest shore. Is he part of a race? Or is this just an old man’s love of solitude and sailing? We don’t know his personal situation or his family ties. We never learn his name. In the credits he is simply “Our Man.” That is one of many strokes of wisdom in a film directed and written by J.C. Chandor.
Yes, it is written, though Chandor admits to us that the script was slender. Our Man says very few words, and there is no such thing as conversation. There is no interior monologue, apart from the message he puts in a bottle, saying he tried to survive his disaster. But this is not a silent film. The sound system at the Herzog (and the work of Gillian Arthur, Micah Bloomberg, and Steve Boeddeker) revels in the lapping of water, the creak of a boat’s straining to hold together, and the bluster of storm in the way those Labs loved the cool grass. There is music, too, and if this were a review I might have to say it is the film’s only flaw.
There will be arguments over the ending, but granted the acknowledgment that “all is lost” we might guess what is coming to all of us. I think the exact handling of the resolution is a miracle that manages to marry the uplift of a great popular entertainment with the philosophy of what survival and life mean. But very few Hollywood films have ended in such ambiguity, or with such a mixture of wit and despair.
At the premiere screening at the Herzog, Redford said, “This is J.C.’s film,” referring to the man whose debut picture was Margin Call (2011), an absurdly neglected examination of economic compromise and collapse. Redford the actor has seldom bowled me over in middle age, and I suppose it’s true that “Our Man” is an archetypal role that other actors might have handled—De Niro, Nicholson, John Wayne, Gary Cooper. But Redford has the part, and he is as noble, vulnerable, and harrowed as Cooper at his best. Moreover, more than those other actors maybe, he seems comfortable on a boat in an enormous ocean. He shows huge, innate skill in letting us share in what the man is feeling. But, in truth, this is a film about presence and hope crumbling with age and stress.
I’m warning you. This is greatness, beautiful but unsettling—as witness the daylight moment when a vast, fully loaded container vessel hurries past him like a ghost ship, never hearing his calls or knowing of his existence. At moments like that All Is Lost becomes a metaphor for brave spirits in a crushingly organized life. You will be as drained when you see it as you have ever been at a movie. I’m not sure that desperate action has ever been as fully conveyed. It could be a commercial hit, but one that leaves us puzzling over what that title means—as if it were Hiroshima mon amour or The Best Years of Our Lives. Just when one worries whether a large, crowd-pleasing American film can still contain resonant ideas, here comes such a thing.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.