Lost and Found: ALL IS LOST, a Contemporary Retelling of THE SUMMONING OF EVERYMAN

23 February 2014

Isolated on his sinking boat in the Indian Ocean, Our Man (Robert Redford), as All is Lost’s only character is called in the credits, faces extraordinary circumstances, testing him physically, emotionally, and mentally.  That said, from one perspective, All is Lost (2013), J. C. Chandor’s second feature film, is a modern-day retelling of The Summoning of Everyman, a 15th century morality play about a man who has become too materialistic and must repent before he faces judgment from God.  Reading All is Lost on that slant, the similarities in plot between Chandor’s, primarily silent, film and the 500-year-old play are remarkable, and walking through the Everyman’s plot details, while linking them with the plot details of All is Lost, helps highlight the connection between the two works.

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Briefly, Everyman is a morality play written in the late 15th century by an unknown author.  The play is commonly interpreted as an allegory about what can happen when people become materialistic, putting earthly possessions ahead of their morals, faith, and good heartedness.  Everyman becomes obsessed with earthly wealth, and so God intervenes and teaches him his good deeds are more important than his monetary aspirations.  In the end, Everyman dies, but has learned his lesson, so he achieves salvation, taking his good deeds with him to heaven.   The set and time of Everyman are ambiguous, and staged productions of this play differ significantly as a result.  Certainly, it would be within reason to assume a yacht in the Indian Ocean where one wealthy, seemingly materialistic, man sails would be a highly appropriate setting for a modern-day Everyman.

Everyman begins with a prologue, wherein a messenger tells the audience to play close attention to the lesson they are meant to learn in this play.  All is Lost also has a prologue, of sorts.  One of the only times the film relies on dialogue is in the prologue, when a voiceover of Our Man addresses an unknown audience, revealing his acceptance of death and sorrow for not being better in life.  From that moment a black screen appears with the text, “8 Days Earlier,” signaling the audience is about see the events that led up to Our Man’s voiceover.  Very much like Everyman, All is Lost opens with an emphasis on a lesson, something that must be learned by watching the subsequent film.

After the prologue in Everyman, God enters, and this divine presence is frustrated with people because they have become infatuated with earthly possession.  God seeks help from Death; God tells Death to strike down any person who values possession and wealth over good deeds.  It is then that Death sees Everyman, just the type of materialistic person God was speaking of.  Everyman tries to persuade Death to give him more time in life, a request Death denies.  After its own prologue, All is Lost opens in a similar way.  Isolated on his yacht in the Indian Ocean, Our Man’s boat is unexpectedly struck by a red cargo vessel carrying, what looks like, designer sneakers.  Just as Everyman begins with higher power’s intervention on Everyman to teach him a lesson about values, one might read All is Lost opening as a higher power’s intervention in the form of the strayed cargo vessel.  Quiet literally, materialism collides with materialism, leaving Our Man’s boat damaged and partially flooded, and designer sneakers floating in ruin at the surface of the Indian Ocean.  Moreover, Our Man tries seeking more time; he repairs his boat and resumes life as it was before the crash.  Yet, Death does not really give Everyman more time, and so Our Man, having climbed the mast of his boat, sees an oncoming storm and realizes time is not on his side.

In Everyman, Death tells Everyman he will die and face God’s judgment, but, if he would like, he can find a friend to come with him on this journey.  Everyman learns rather quickly, once his friends realize he has been marked by Death, no one will go with him on his journey.  The same is true in All is Lost.  First, before the storm hits Our Man’s boat, he tries radioing out a distress call.  No one responds.  Moreover, after the storm, Our Man’s boat sinks, forcing him on to the survival raft, which come equipped with distress flares.  When cargo boats and ships come within sight, Our Man lights these distress signals; however, no one is willing to help Our Man, not even the cargo ship, perhaps the one responsible for the original damage to Our Man’s boat, which sails right next to Our Man’s raft.

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Without friends, Everyman realizes that he has invested too much in earthly possessions and he must turn to alms as penance for his misguided ways.  Specifically, Everyman turns to Knowledge and Confession (two righteous characters) who assist Everyman in penance.  Everyman does not confess all his sins; instead, he repents by offering his body as sacrifice for his mortal materialism.  In All is Lost, Our Man makes the same realization and also turns to confession as penance.  When Our Man accepts that no one will come save him, Our Man writes a letter, likely the letter the audience heard through voiceover in the prologue.  It seems this letter is for his loved ones, but the intended audience is unknown.  Some reviewers have interpreted the letter as a message to God, which may only strengthen the Everyman connection; however, the ambiguity of Our Man’s intended audience highlights that this letter in not about its recipient; the letter is about a dying man’s repentance, or confession. In the letter Our Man apologies for his “sins,” and then puts the letter in a jar and throws into the ocean.

Furthermore, Everyman is physically tortured as penance because he offered God his body as sacrifice.  Like Everyman, Our Man also offers his body up in sacrifice.  In the film’s conclusion, Our Man thinks he sees the lights of a boat, and so he sets a fire in the water container onboard the raft.  This fire gets out of control, and quickly burns the entire raft, forcing Our Man into the ocean.  Without a raft or a rescue, Our Man decides to stop swimming, drowning himself and allowing his body to sink into the dark ocean.

In the wake of the physical torture, Everyman is absolved of his sins, and his good deed of penance helps prepare him for God’s judgment.  Similarly, Our Man’s sacrifice of his own body as a figurative penance also seems to earn him a good deed.  As Our Man slowly, and rather peacefully, drowns, he notices a rescue boat approach his burning raft and he swims up toward it.  As he approaches the surface, Our Man grabs an outstretched arm in the water.  Before Our Man reaches the surface, the film fades to white.

Audiences will argue amid themselves if this means Our Man was saved in the end, or if he achieves salvation.  On the Everyman slant, Our Man is not saved in the end, but he does find salvation.  Put another way, Our Man dies because there is no human hand outstretched to pull him from drowning in the Indian Ocean; however, Our Man’s physical penance saved his soul, and he, like Everyman, crosses over into the afterlife at the end, hence the fade to white.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 23/02/2014.

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