all is lost

I finally caught up with the nearly dialogue-free Robert Redford film All is Lost (written and directed by J.C. Chandor, writer/director of Margin Call). Redford stars as “Our Man”, an aging-but-capable mariner who finds himself lost at sea. Apart from a bit of opening narration (Redford reading what amounts to a giving-up-on-life note, telling loved ones that he tried, and that he’s sorry) and a screamed expletive when he realizes that all might indeed be lost, the only lines in the film are Redford calling out to a couple of passing ships for help.

The ships don’t stop. All is lost.

And yet, all is not lost. But Chandor makes you wait for that part.


All is Lost is a film about the ultimate powerlessness of life. More precisely, it’s a film about the powerlessness of human beings to deal with what life can (and usually does) throw at them. At first blush, though, our man is anything but powerless. We first meet him as he wakes up to his sailboat filling with water. We watch as he assesses the damage and goes about fixing it, all with incredible calm and skill. I found myself thinking, within moments of the beginning of the film, “Well, I’d be dead already.” But not our man.

In contrast to a film like Grizzly Man (the Werner Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the bear-lover and activist who eventually gets himself eaten by one of his beloved bears) which featured an arguably prepared but woefully naïve protagonist, All is Lost is the story of an übermensch, an almost superheroic Redford ready for anything…except the ultimate thing.

The ultimate thing in any sailing movie is, of course, a storm. But not just any storm. A storm that reduces our man to nothing. In a storm powerful enough, all the preparation, all the skill, all the calm in the face of adversity just isn’t enough. Our man is as ready to face this storm as a man in a sailboat with a broken radio could possibly be. It’s not enough.

It’s not too on-the-nose at this point to say that the viewer is meant to consider the situations in their lives in which their preparation isn’t enough. Chandor has said explicitly that his intention was to bring movie-goers to a place in which they were forced to come to grips with their own mortality.

It is a natural human impulse I think, capitalized on by the Boy Scouts, to assume that preparedness can solve any problem. If you go into the woods with the right maps, enough food and water, and appropriate bug repellant, you should be fine. Analogously, If you go out into the world with the right grounding in philosophy, having read the classics, and an appropriately dry sense of humor, you should be fine. Until the storm comes. It’s in the midst of the wind and waves that you realize your preparedness is insufficient. Mike Tyson got at this when he said, “Everybody has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”

Christians understand this storm best, because know where it comes from. It’s no surprise to see it brewing on the horizon; we’ve been trying to protect ourselves from it since Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together in the garden of Eden (“We heard you walking in the garden, and we were afraid”). There is no storm more powerful than God’s judgment of and wrath toward sin. It is too vicious. Nothing can be done to escape it. In the face of the killer storm of the almighty power of God all is lost.

At one key moment in All is Lost, our man is reduced to infancy, unable to affect his fate at all. He’s in a life raft, in the midst of the storm, in the fetal position. He has his hands over his ears and his eyes squeezed shut, like a baby being told something he doesn’t want to hear. The announcement he’s hearing is God’s first word out of the storm: you’re going to die.

All is lost. And yet, all is not lost.

“You’re going to die” is God’s first word out of the storm, but it’s not God’s final word. The other thing that Christians know about the storm is that it ends. After all, Jesus announced that “It is finished” as he hung on the cross, guaranteeing victory to all who trust in him for salvation from the storm.

Our man’s rescue is a miracle. It can be described in no other way. He drifts by accident into an active shipping lane, but is unable to flag down either of two tankers, one of which passes so close to him that I thought he might just grab hold as it went by.  Finally, he drifts out the other side of the shipping lane, and he’s already written the “I’m sorry” note, stuffed it in a bottle and thrown it overboard. He has burned his life raft in an effort to alert a third ship, but that doesn’t seem to be working either. As the raft burns, he even literally stops treading water, deciding to drown.

It is only when all of our self salvation efforts are exhausted, it is only when we decide to stop treading water that we will call out for a savior who exists outside of us. That call is answered by God’s second and final word out of the storm: a calm sea, and a savior walking across the water.

First, all is lost.

Then, all is not lost. Then, salvation. Then, the shadow of a boat. Then, a hand reaching down beneath the surface of the water. When all is lost to us, almighty God proves that all is not lost to him.