What to Make of the Ending of All Is Lost

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 18 2013 6:46 PM

All Is Lost. Or Is It?

What to make of the ending of the new Robert Redford movie.

Robert Redford in All Is Lost
Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

Photo by Daniel Daza © 2013 Roadside Attractions

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.
Advertisement

To Redford, it doesn’t matter whether or not he succeeds. It’s the trying that matters.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 10:17 AM How Jack Ma Founded Alibaba
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 11:40 AM How to Put Things in Your Fridge
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.