Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
If you’ve just seen J.C. Chandor’s stunning new movie All Is Lost, chances are you came away with one of two reactions: “Thank God he made it!” or “It was so sad when he died.” At a Q&A with Chandor and star Robert Redford at the Telluride Film Festival in August, the moderator asked the audience, “How many people think he makes it?” The audience’s show of hands revealed “about a 50-50 split.”
Both the star and the writer-director are happy that audiences are having both interpretations. Chandor even described sitting outside of a screening and hearing an audience member start to say something about “When he dies…” only to have the moviegoer’s friend say, “What the heck are you talking about?”
If you’re a pessimist, or perhaps just a realist, you might think that the main character’s final vision—of the flashlight shining down on him, and a hand reaching down into the water—is just a dying delusion, too good to be true. If you’re an optimist, you might take it all at face value: Redford’s character is literally saved. Or, if you’re religious, you might have a third interpretation: It’s not his dying delusion, but a true vision—he’s being pulled into the afterlife. In this reading, the unusual fade to white might represent something like an ascent to heaven.
In an interview with Television Without Pity, Chandor spoke about what the fade to white means to him:
There are 21 frames of white right at the last moment that I put in there and that’s a little unusual because it lights up the theater in a weird way. But in my mind, it was a way of cementing the end of the film and locking it in your mind, so it’s your film. I’m handing it over. Hopefully, you’re learning something about yourself and starting to think about that.
As with the similarly-minded ending of The Sopranos, if you can’t personally choose one interpretation or the other, you just have to accept the mystery. There’s no universally right answer here.
But just because you don’t know for sure whether it’s the lady or the tiger or whether the cat is dead or not does not mean the ending has no meaning. Robert Redford was, I think, getting at the meaning of the ending—or at least what it means to him—in his recent interview with The New York Times. In the interview, he says that he lives by his favorite T.S. Eliot line, from Four Quartets: “There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” In another part of the interview, he echoes that idea: “To me, it was always to climb up the hill,” he says, “Not standing at the top.” Both these quotes bring to mind the first and nearly only lines in the movie, from the protagonist’s note:
I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.
To Redford, it doesn’t matter whether or not he succeeds. It’s the trying that matters.