In 2013, Robert Redford starred in a quiet little parable about surviving at sea. I say quiet quite literally; there is barely more than a word of dialogue (the most well-earned expletive in American cinema). I say parable because of how the film illustrates invisible spiritual reality through a lens of bodily action. This essay will address the whole film, so spoilers ahoy! All Is Lost is available to stream if you’d like to catch up before reading on.
Our illusions of control form the core of All Is Lost. This is a tale of the ultimate futility of human effort. Far from fatalistic, though, the film manages to mine utter failure for seams of coal-black beauty. Critics often compared Redford’s character—billed only as Our Man—to the biblical Job. More interesting parallels, though, arise from two of Jesus’ more well-known parables: those of the rich young ruler who couldn’t give up his money and of the beaten man needing help from a good Samaritan. All Is Lost is about more than suffering.
We open as Our Man wakes to the sound of his boat taking on water. Impaled on the edge of a shipping container lost overboard and adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Of course, we know even now that this is only the beginning because we have already heard the voice over of Our Man’s message in a bottle. Writing days later, he confesses that all is lost for him. The note itself is the primary key to understanding this parable. With a few deft strokes, it sketches out a self-possessed man. One who says he tried to be good to his loved ones yet knew he hadn’t entirely succeeded. Ostensibly, this is because he had simultaneously been pursuing the kind of success that affords a high-tech sailboat and the financial independence to sail, alone, across an ocean. We have the impression of a man once very confident in himself and the success of his endeavors, though at the cost of a selfishness that has him distanced if not completely estranged from the people who come to mind when all is lost.
The shipping container has struck at the exact spot where Our Man’s communication and navigation equipment sits, and it is all ruined. If the radio is an analog to the instrument of prayer, it is to that prayer which flows from the conceit that we know exactly what we need and so only raise God with our demands, presuming he will dispatch the kind of rescue we expect. A favorable change of circumstance, a mere shift in the wind. This is the prayer of the self-reliant, ceding no will or wisdom to God. A good disaster makes nonsense of such presumption and so Our Man is stripped of prayer-as-control. He is at mercy.
Taking stock of his situation, Our Man sets to patching the gaping hole in his boat with resin and canvas. He succeeds, but veers far from his chosen course as a necessary consequence. All Is Lost is now staged to show us the incalculable wildness of blessing and curse, the wildness of God moving across the face of the deep. This is the wildness that spoke to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes of futility. In contact with this wildness, Our Man’s work—his supplies, equipment, preparation—prove arbitrary. As it turns out, he was never actually in the world he presumed to mitigate. His effort, success, and failure had always played out as a fraction of reality and the remainder was about to descend upon him with a terrible fury. A storm at sea.
All Is Lost insists that we navigate a world entirely in excess of even our best effort. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, just when we think our plans are foolproof, nature will send along just such a disaster to make fools of us. If the storm hadn’t come, Our Man might still have made safe harbor. But, the storm did come. His boat ruined, we see Our Man adrift in an inflatable raft, his volition now fully yielded. With pre-GPS navigation, he can chart where he is going, but he is at the mercy of currents and winds. Blessedly, he finds himself drifting towards a major trans-oceanic shipping lane.
While Our Man is stripped of the kind of hope he’d always known, the director, JC Chandor, never lets us escape beauty. His shots of the stillness, and expanse of the ocean, his gift of the silence of Our Man’s solitude—unspoiled by dramatic music or inner monologue—give even this disaster a resonant grandeur. The most affecting reminders of goodness come when Chandor shoots the raft from below, finding tiny fish and other sea creatures gathered in the sanctuary of Our Man’s raft. The images are electric, jolts of life in stark contrast to the endless austerity Our Man sees to the horizon. Even this ocean, harsh to a man, nurtures any life willing to depend on its provenance, built to receive it (which Our Man is not. His free will has lead him beyond the grace he was built to bear).
At this point, two critical moments remain to us, the first coming as Our Man drifts through the shipping lane hoping for rescue. The parable of the Good Samaritan will unfold for us, but instead of priests and et ceteras, we have container ships.
Could we really expect a mammoth ship, laden to its brink with merchandise, to spot a speck of a raft in that vast sea? Could Our Man? Pummeled and robbed by the sea, he watches each ship pass by blind to his distress.
How often are we in the position of those container ships? The tragedy is we have no idea. We are so driven by our own agenda that we lumber along, freighted with whatever we feel sure is so precious and urgent, across what we see as an empty ocean, a mere passageway to our goals. We are blind to what flotsam or jetsam might drift across our path. We blind our selves with silence, namely the absence of good questions. What spiritual shipwrecks have we left stranded, too busy about our busy-ness? (And this is all not even considering that carelessly-handled cargo sunk Our Man in the first place. Now there’s a metaphor to chew on.)
After the second ship misses his pitiful distress signals, Our Man writes out his confession. The letter of regret and resignation we heard at the beginning. His life and choices have, but for some unreasonable grace no longer expected, killed him.
Suspended in the black of night—the tomb of the past, but the womb of the dawn—he sees lights on the horizon. Expended of flares, Our Man gives up his last wealth—the plastic jug used to gather what little potable condensation he could collect from evaporated sea water—to house a signal fire. The fire spreads to his boat. He has now burned everything he had and enters the deep, malnourished and fatigued. Despite his every effort to find another way, Our Man has found himself forced to do what the rich young ruler in Jesus’ story could not do: to seek out life, he despaired of everything on which he thought he utterly depended. The fire prepares the final critical point in the narrative. All Is Lost ends with the difference between confession and repentance. They must come in that order.
Our Man made his confession, that he ‘tried to be right’, but ‘all is lost’ for him. This did not save him, though. His life had lead him to death, but he still had no alternative until a searchlight reached him as he sank into a nameless void. By a hand reaching down, Our Man was saved.
If that’s how you take the ending, then All Is Lost is a crisp allegory for our life. The film challenges us to see the futility and even folly of our best efforts in such a wide world, so immensely wild. It demands that we be on the lookout for our shipwrecked neighbors. And, it refuses to let us off the hook with mere confession. No, to find life, we must see the end of ourselves through a ring of fire and we must turn from death to grab the life reaching a hand beneath the waves. All must be lost if we are to get out of this world alive. We’re all that rich, young ruler; we’re all Our Man. What craft do we sail, what contrivance of free will and self reliance? Is our vessel equal to the carelessness of others and the fury of the storms passing to and fro on the water, so inventive in their havoc? When will we be asked to burn what we think is our very life and will we understand this world clearly enough to do so? What will we give and what must be taken when all is lost?
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