At the end of the 2013 movie All Is Lost, a shipwrecked Robert Redford swims upward toward a light on the surface of the water, leaving viewers to decide whether he’s been rescued at the last possible minute or he’s hallucinating in the moments before he goes down for the last time. Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle stretches the ambiguity of that moment out to feature length, to an extent that distinguishing between reality and dying fantasy becomes not only impossible but undesirable.
Dudok de Wit, making his first feature after decades crafting animated shorts, plunges us headfirst into the action as an unnamed man is tossed between ocean waves among the wreckage of his boat. Before long he washes up on an island and sets about exploring, but if he has thoughts about his situation beyond the drive to escape it, he keeps them to himself. The movie, which Dudok de Wit co-wrote with Bird People’s Pascale Ferran, has no dialogue beyond the occasional grunt or yell. Its protagonist has no name, no backstory, and barely anything in the way of distinguishing features; his body is realistically outlined, but his face is little more than two dots and an upside-down 7 of a nose, and he’s often shot from a distance so that even if he had features, we wouldn’t be able to see them. He’s like a human-shaped hole in the screen, an invitation to insert yourself into the story.
The man—can we call him anything else?—gets himself into trouble almost immediately, slipping deep into a rocky inlet before re-emerging through a narrow underwater crevasse (the first of many rebirths). Soon he builds a raft out of bamboo and vines, using foliage as a sail, but his craft is attacked from below and splinters into pieces. He builds another raft, and it happens again, but still he can find no sight of a creature large enough to cause so much damage. The cycle repeats, and soon time, too, begins to splinter.
The Red Turtle is the first movie from Japan’s Studio Ghibli to be directed by a foreign artist (Dudok de Wit is Dutch), with Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) credited as its artistic producer. The technique is a blend of hand-drawn and computer animation, and like Ghibli’s classic films, especially Hayao Miyazaki’s, it lavishes as much attention on the natural world as the creatures who inhabit it. But though it has the shape of a fairy tale, The Red Turtle’s perspective is distinctly adult, and its vision of nature is harsher than Miyazaki’s.
Its release the weekend before Oscar nominations are announced suggests that distributor Sony Pictures Classics is confident it will make the final five alongside such foreordained candidates as Zootopia and Moana, but it’s both the most simply beautiful and the least welcoming of the likely nominees. Dudok de Wit works with a narrow palette, so much so that the man’s black-and-white dreams are sometimes difficult to distinguish from his modestly polychromatic waking life, but that palette explodes when he discovers that the creature who has been destroying his raft is a bright crimson turtle—threatening in its massive size but otherwise apparently indifferent to his fate.
Having had only the company of some crabs who scuttle across the beach with the lightness of Cinderella’s mice, the man is entranced by this new arrival, but he’s enraged by it, too, and one day when it’s crawled onto the sand, he manages to attack it and flip it on its back, an act of wanton cruelty that vents some of the man’s fury but fails to dissipate it. From there, The Red Turtle takes a fantastical turn, and then another and another, and for a long time, it’s not clear how much of what we’re seeing we are to believe. He’s already hallucinated a string quartet playing in the surf, the product of a mind desperate for any form of emotional connection; it’s a little like the elaborate psychosis conjured by the isolated protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, only infused with hope instead of alienation and self-loathing. There’s no definitive breaking point, or perhaps there are many, or none.
The Red Turtle is so effective at evoking the tangible particulars of the man’s predicament that its turn towards allegory (if that is indeed what it is) threatens to derail the film entirely. That ambiguity complicates our relationship to the film in ways that are never resolved: Are we witnessing the man’s imagination or being asked to imagine the story ourselves? But both halves are achieved with such rapturous minimalism that the best solution is to immerse oneself in the story exactly as it’s presented and leave the figuring out for afterward—or, just as well, do without it altogether. The man is humbled by his environment, and viewers would do well to approach The Red Turtle with the same level of humility.