All Is Lost is a man-stranded-at-sea movie, starring Robert Redford in a role with almost no dialogue. He plays an unnamed fellow who wakes up on his small yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean, only to see that a random shipping crate has gashed a hole in the hull. It’s like his own miniature iceberg scrape: Suddenly, his boat could go down, and he with it. Most movies that strand a solitary figure at sea (like Life of Pi) or on a desert island (like Cast Away) are lonely but upbeat tales of invention and survival. J.C. Chandor, the writer and director of All Is Lost, does a radical existential twist on those stories. The film starts out with Redford in voice-over, reading an apologetic farewell to his family, saying that ‘all is lost.’ It’s quite a downer of an opening, and when the movie then flashes back eight days, we’re primed to experience Redford’s journey as a downward spiral, the story of a man getting sucked into the void.
This is only the second film by Chandor (Margin Call), and he works in a style of great purity. There’s hardly a ‘movieish’ moment to speak of in All Is Lost. Redford tries to save himself, repairing the hole in the boat with glue and burlap, pumping out the water, climbing the boat’s very tall mast (that’s Redford up there — he did most of his own stunt work), and trying to get a radio signal. Then a storm hits, a real nighttime whopper with towering black waves, and our protagonist barely comes out of it alive. From then on, he’s surviving, but he’s also losing.
We’re gripped by his ingenuity, and we’re also moved by the image of this legendary actor, still ruggedly handsome in a weathered way at 77, acting without a net. The whole drama of All Is Lost is there in his face, and the power of his performance is that we can read the emotion in every crevice. After a while, something strange and new creeps into Redford’s eyes: It’s fear — and, in the last part of the movie, the resigning of himself to death. This is Robert Redford doing what too many stars should do and don’t: taking a chance. And reinventing his art. It’s an extraordinary thing to see. A