Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our advisories: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Star rating (1-5): 4
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small,
It cannot be that any happy fate,
Will me befall,
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me,
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.
1st stanza of Bretony Fisherman’s Prayer*
What a contrast director J. C. Chandor’s film proved to be after my having rushed from a theater down the hall where I had endured the seemingly endless loud music and improbable heroics of the muscular Thor just 5 minutes before! In this film there is just one man, almost no dialogue, and a “set” that consists of a yacht, and then a covered lifeboat—and of course, the Indian Ocean. There is no back-story or flashbacks, no narration, and thus no subplots, just this simple story of an inventive man struggling to survive the sinking of his 39-foot yacht on which he was the sole person. We should add that the musical score, with a simple, haunting melody by Alex Ebert, contributes greatly to its impact.
At the beginning of the movie we hear a brief statement that includes, “I’m sorry. I tried. All is lost here except for body and soul,” obviously written by a man who has given up the struggle for survival. Then we are taken back eight days, during the latter part of which we see him write this note and place it in a jar in the forlorn hope that someone someday, somehow would find and read it. We are not told his name, just “Our Man” (Robert Redford) in the credits. On the first of those eight days Our Man wakes up when there is a bump and some noise. He discovers that his Virginia Jean has run into a large cargo container that somehow has fallen off a ship. There are already several inches of water on the floor, and more pouring through the large hole that the edge of the container had gashed into the hull of his yacht. He manages to place a crude patch over the large hole and to whittle the end of a pole so that it will serve as the handle for his pump, thus his being able to dispose of the seawater swishing around his ankles.
He dries out his radio, climbs the tall mast to reconnect a plug, and utters virtually all of the spoken dialogue in the film “This is the Virginia Jean with an SOS call. Over.” Actually, this qualifies as monologue, as there is no response. Just silence, punctuated by the sound of the wind. He is truly alone hundreds of miles from land. Opening the survival kit he finds a sextant, a manual on how to use it, and nautical maps on which he charts his progress. Everything he does is a struggle, but he shows little emotion, and says nothing—quite different from Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway.
The arrival of a storm proves to be the most dangerous of the many problems confronting him. The Virginia Jean is tossed about by the wind and waves like a toy, the boat being turned upside down a couple of times, throwing Our Man around like a doll. Quite a jolt to look out the cabin window and see, not sky but the waters of the deep! More water leaks in, so that when the storm passes, it becomes obvious that the vessel will not be able to stay afloat much longer. Thus he launches the life raft, much like the one in Captain Phillips in that it has a protective cover. He tethers the raft to the vessel and, over the next day or two transfers some supplies.
Our man has displayed a stoicism worthy of the originators of that philosophy. However, when he discovers that his large plastic jug of drinking water has been contaminated, he does become so frustrated that he cries out aloud the swear word that, had he said it twice, might have earned the film an R rating. Thanks to the survival manual, he does devise an ingenious method of obtaining water by use of the sun’s heat, a clear plastic sheet stretched over the cut-away jug, and a cup placed right under the sheet to collect the moisture that condenses. This produces just a few swallows at a time, but it keeps him alive, along with his cans of beans.
He uses the fishing tackle from the survival kit, but when he is about to pull in his catch, a shark suddenly rises up and snatches it away. An underwater shot looking up shows a dozen or more of these creatures circling about the raft. This is one in a series of events, including another storm tossing and turning over the raft, that eat away at his spirit.
Each day he takes a sighting with the sextant, noting his position on his nautical map. The current and winds are driving him a little farther north each day. Adding to his frustration is the failure of cargo vessels to spot him, even when he sends up signal flares. The first comes within a hundred yards or so, passing him by with no notice. The second almost rams him while he is sleeping, waking him up as it too passes by. Later when he spots the lights of a plane at night he takes an extreme measure, so desperate is he that it appears to be suicidal.
Our Man, so taciturn that his only spontaneous outcry is the “F” word, never utters a “fox hole prayer,” so secularized is he. He faces his impending death with the courage of a stoic who has done everything possible to preserve his life. While admirable, he is hardly the example that people of faith would point to as a model for dealing with death. Compared to such a person as Francis of Assisi, who during his last painful days spoke of “Sister Death,” his is a pitiable plight. (In the questions that follow we offer the possibility of using the film for a discussion of the subject so dreaded by a great many people, that of death, and of our own in particular.) Nonetheless, we admire both his inventiveness and his courage, and we leave the theater with a profound respect, for both the screen character and the great performance of Robert Redford. The Sun Dance founder demonstrates that even in advanced middle age he can still command the screen.
*The whole poem is available, along with Rembrandt’s painting “Storm at the Sea of Galilee” at http://nuslegion.blogspot.com/2008/06/o-god-thy-sea-is-so-great-and-my-boat.html
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.