Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Robert Redford

All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Whether understood on a literal or an allegorical level, All Is Lost is a compelling film. Set in a lonely expanse of the Indian Ocean — “1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits” — it stars Robert Redford as an unnamed yachtsman, whose vessel has been compromised in a freak accident. Concerned yet resolute, “Our Man” (so dubbed by the credits) initially seeks to repair his boat, but a series of storms renders it unsalvageable. He is then forced to retreat to a life raft, where he can do little but wait for a rescuer. Short on rations and vulnerable to the sea’s caprice, the sailor is not only in a struggle with time but also with his own insignificance opposite the forces of nature and of men.

Yet, director J.C. Chandor wants All Is Lost to go beyond a bare survival story. After all, unlike other animals, human beings confront their mortality reflexively. That is to say, the human being views his or her peril not as a mere member of the species but, rather, as an “I” or a “thou.” Thus an early voiceover — practically the film’s only words — discloses that the sailor has loved ones and is concerned about their well-being. Moreover, in his plight, he is painfully aware that his life has fallen short of what he and others have desired. He has “tried” (as he repeatedly stresses) to do the right thing, but his efforts have led to disappointment. “I’m sorry,” he concludes.

But what is it to be “sorry”? In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard argues that to be sorry or to recognize one’s own guilt is a qualification of immanent religiousness. In other words, it is not a quality exclusive to Christianity but, rather, belongs to every human attempt to understand life in relation to an ultimate happiness. For, over against even the possibility of an ideal existence, human beings can see that it is not something they can achieve on their own. One can try to be a perfect father or scholar or athlete — to use mundane examples that Kierkegaard, admittedly, would not prefer — but will realize soon enough that such attempts are futile. Here an abyss opens up. Human beings cannot be what they want to be. And, Kierkegaard adds, any earnest confrontation with this fact will result in sorrow, not just in a general sense, but in a personal one. Against the backdrop of our finitude, brought into sharp relief by the encroaching specter of death, we become sorry for our failures, for all that we wanted to do but didn’t.

Of course, Redford’s character is not philosophizing in this way, but his statement of apology doesn’t seem like an accident either. It is an appropriate reaction to the myriad of weaknesses that constitute human existence. Moreover, it opens up new possibilities for the film’s ending. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that another dimension of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the religious life emerges, wherein the deepening of, or the descent into, immanent religiousness makes the individual receptive to salvation — indeed, a salvation from beyond the person’s own capability. One might call it a salvation from above.

Jeremiah Johnson (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1972)

While not a classic Western like The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969), Jeremiah Johnson has long been seen as a respectable contributor to the genre — and, so, the sort of film that is ideal to watch on Amazon Prime, particularly when you are snowed in (as we have been in the Philadelphia area). Set in the mid nineteenth century, its titular hero (Robert Redford, at his rugged best) is a veteran of the Mexican-American War, now determined to take leave of civilization. Armed with a rifle and a few provisions, he heads deep into the Rocky Mountains, hoping to “trap critters” and, in a gesture of Thoreauvian simplicity, to make do with what nature provides him.

Yet, difficulties crop up from the start. Though impossibly beautiful — indeed, Jeremiah Johnson is a veritable ode to Utah, where it was shot — the mountains prove to be a severe environment. There are heavy snows, fierce bear and wolves, and the landscape seems to be littered with human corpses, whether victims of the elements or of violent men. Thus director Sydney Pollack quickly tempers the film’s romantic leanings: yes, the wilderness is resplendent, but it is also cruel, unforgiving.

Johnson soon learns that, for better or worse, he has to rely on those whom he otherwise would avoid, namely, human beings. He picks up survival tips from an old trapper, and, through a series of unplanned events, he finds himself the patriarch of a small family — an adopted son, Caleb, and a Flathead squaw, Swan. They build a cabin in a valley, and each member of the family proves invaluable to the happiness of the whole. Here, it seems, is the human ideal, though, again, the film quickly retreats from any idealistic pretensions. For just as the family unit is a kind of culture, so does it find itself embedded in larger cultures. In this case, Johnson and his clan are caught between the needs of white settlers and the ancient customs of the Crow natives, whose territory surrounds him. He’d rather be left alone, but, even deep in the Rockies, the ways of men reign supreme.

Ultimately, then, Jeremiah Johnson is a testimony to, if also a lamentation for, a postlapsarian world. We all have our ideals, it suggests, and we may even find friendship and love for a time. Yet, on this side of Eden (to put it in Christian terms, though one might just as well say “Utopia” or “El Dorado”), these are but fleeting realities. Johnson learns this lesson firsthand, and he soon (and somewhat controversially) lashes out at such injustice. As the movie ends, however, it is revealed that neither Johnson nor his ostensible enemies pursue violence as an end in itself. What they really want — what all human beings really want — is peace.