Monday, June 2, 2014

Waking up in the middle of a disaster

I'm not sure if All is Lost is a great movie, but it's close enough that the difference may be academic. What I can state for certain is that it's a great performance by Robert Redford, one I feel compelled to unpack a little bit, to put my finger on why it's so great.

It's a man-in-a-can movie, and I watched it in a can on Saturday -- in other words, on a plane to and from Sydney. Yes indeedy, I spent only the day there, as an old friend of mine was passing through town for the weekend. He had a spare bed in his hotel room, but I had to return to Melbourne for parenting duties and the like. I'm glad I got to make the unlikely trip at all, given that I didn't even know he was in the country before Wednesday. It all came together and it was a great trip.

A much better trip than the one Robert Redford has in the southern Indian Ocean in All is Lost. We know from the start it's going to be bad, and not only from the portentous opening, which features a narrated piece of writing from the desperate sailor (known in the credits as "Our Man"), written at a time when he's already given up on the struggle we are about to witness. This also constitutes just about the only dialogue in the whole movie.

After this prologue, we see the ever-reliable title card that flashes us back to eight days in the past, when we come in on -- for the first time, but not nearly the last -- Robert Redford sleeping.

And this is why I like Redford's performance so much -- it's the way he wakes up.

He wakes up to the beginning of the calamity, when we see him from above sleeping on one of those couches below deck that also functions as mess hall seating -- or at least that's how a person who is not nautically inclined, such as myself, interpreted it. Enter stage right: WATER. Enough so that someone might have filled a keg with it, cut off the top like a can of beans, and given it a mighty slosh in the direction of the floor below his bed. Enough water that this spells major trouble.

See, Our Man's boat has hit a shipping container that fell off Captain Phillips' boat, and it's now got a gash the size of a basketball in its hull. Only Our Man doesn't realize this right away. First, he's got to wake up.

There's a lot of blinking, of course, because blinking is not only a necessary means of calibrating you to the waking world, but it's also an involuntary reaction to something rather amazing: an alarming quantity of water breaching your heretofore impregnable hull.

But Redford doesn't acknowledge the change in his circumstances merely through the blinking. It's more from that oh-so-subtle "Oh shit, I'm fucked" expression that dawns on his face. One that's informed by just coming up from three layers of slumber, and one that graces his visage at least a dozen more times in the movie.

That's the great thing about this performance: Almost never does it exceed the looks of wariness, the looks of recognition, the looks of "Okay, that didn't work, what now?" that appear in Redford's eyes. Only once or twice does he become demonstrative over his frustration.

I keep thinking about how different this movie would be if it had been made in a different era. This is not to scoff at those eras when no one trusted the audience to understand things that didn't appear in dialogue; it was exactly that, a different era. But the 1945 version of All is Lost would have been filled with Redford talking to himself, from start to finish, in a vaguely theatrical way.

When Redford does have occasion to speak -- the third day, I want to say it was -- his first attempt is swallowed up in a whisper, the false start of a voice hoarse from lack of use. He's still got water to lubricate his speech, but merely not talking for three days puts the vocal chords into a dormant state. And really, we don't know long he was alone even before he ran aground on the Maersk dropping.

But back to the issue of Our Man sleeping. Over an eight-day ordeal, he obviously has to sleep from time to time, regardless of how dire his circumstances may be. A number of his awakenings are captured on film, and it's a real talent as an actor to both believably sleep and believably awaken. (On the former front, he is once shown giving his hand a perfect mid-sleep muscle twitch). Awakening isn't just opening your eyes -- it's arriving at consciousness. And each arrival at consciousness is accompanied by an initial confusion about where he is, followed immediately by the sad realization that wherever he was in his dreams is a lot better than here. What makes each awakening worse is that it's often the result a new challenge confronting him -- a new leak, an oncoming storm, the narrow missing of an opportunity.

One would have thought Redford could have sleep-walked his way to an Oscar nomination, but none was forthcoming. Redford now has something good to talk about with Paul Giamatti the next time they cross paths, I guess.

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