Buoyed by an excellent performance from Robert Redford in a career full of them, All is Lost is a confident, visceral film from an emerging director.

All is lost here… except for soul and body… that is, what’s left of them… and a half-day’s ration

– Our Man

The shipwreck drama All is Lost pulls off a pretty incredible trick. It contains only one character, almost no dialogue, and somehow manages to stay not just watchable, but captivating. The film rests entirely on star Robert Redford’s shoulders, and the 77 year old actor gives a powerful, rugged performance sure to put him at the front of the best actor race at the Academy Awards.

All is Lost is the second film from Margin Call director J.C. Chandor, and, while I did not see that film, I did take a few minutes to read up on it while I was working on this review. Evidently it centers on a firm at the outset of the 2008 stock market collapse, and it garnered Chandor an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. A quick look at some of the movie’s quotes revealed a lot of back and forth, snappy dialogue and a decent amount of money market jargon.

Honestly, this information shocked me because that type of film could not be more different than what Chandor gives us in All is Lost. There aren’t any societal constructs like market variability or toxic assets here. That’s too complex. This is purely Man vs. Nature, and the struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds.

The film opens with a slow pan across an enormous floating hunk of metal while a stoic, but weary voice apologizes for his failures. “I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried,” he says. Is it failure as father? A husband? There’s no indication, but it’s clearly a goodbye. It would barely make a paragraph on paper, but it’s all we get. That narration composes 90% of the dialogue in the film, and it’s gone in the first minute.  “All is lost,” he says, as something has evidently gone horribly wrong.

Eight days earlier, an unnamed man (Our Man, according to the closing credits) wakes to the sound of a collision and his cabin filling with water. The hunk of metal is revealed to be a drifting shipping container that collides with Our Man’s boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Alone on his boat, he calmly removes the shipping container and sets out repairing the boat. He patches the hole with canvas and resin. He bottles his remaining fresh water. He dries and desalinates the insides of his wet electronics and manually pumps the water out of the cabin. Redford is methodical and confident with his actions, and his demeanor implies that his character has problems, but he won’t panic facing the danger. When he finds his navigation equipment has been destroyed, he stoically begins reading a book on celestial navigation and has a glass of scotch with his dinner.

He tacitly repairs the radio, but his lone call for rescue goes unanswered before the radio quits for good. There’s a reason for the lack of neighboring ships: without any weather reports he’s unknowingly drifted into the path of an oncoming storm and the boat capsizes twice. Our Man is knocked unconscious.

Chandor maintains a mastery of spatial awareness throughout, contrasting the cramped interiors of the boat with the vast, surging ocean. His camera spins and rocks in the boat, and the viewer is sent on a nauseating ride along with our character. The sounds of the storm dominate the scene, and highlight just how fragile the boat is in the tumult of the storm.  We need the break that comes with Our Man’s unconsciousness. It’s visceral storytelling comprised of stark visuals, the sounds of the ocean, and Redford’s urgent performance.

He awakens to find the boat damaged beyond repair, and he takes to a life raft with scant supplies, and a sextant in tow. Navigating by the stars he catches a current and drifts toward a shipping lane, keeping track of his coordinates in a journal. His situation is increasingly dangerous, but still survivable.

Redford is a marvel throughout, adding another great performance to a legendary career. His aged face looks like it was carved from granite, and its weathered features express a strong resilience to every challenge. But eventually even he begins to break down as the water ends up spoiled, the life raft springs a leak, and a shark eats the fish he finally manages to catch. Worse yet, the smell of blood calls more sharks to circle.

Redford’s real excellence is our ability to identify with him. With the lack of a back story — or any details about his character’s life — Redford ends up representing the Everyman, and he invites us to imagine ourselves in this same situation. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Redford is an old pro. A less-talented actor could make this film unwatchable because the role is so demanding. There are no other actors to share the screen with, and no lines to develop the character. After the opening narration he only speaks three more times, and two of those are one word exclamations. If Redford had failed the film would have failed. There‘s no alternative.

Throughout the film Chandor is constantly pressing us with the same question: when have you fought enough? And is there ever a time to give up? After days on the open ocean Our Man is ravaged by the blistering sun, out of water, and emotionally numb after two ships pass him but don’t see his flares. Chandor’s camera begins shooting upwards from under the water as though it’s beckoning him to give up, climb in, and drift away. The raft continuously seems a smaller and smaller refuge in a vast ocean. With nothing left to do he writes a note (presumably the text of the opening narration), puts it in a jar, and throws it in the water. Supplies and hope are quickly running out, but have we finally reached the point where all is lost?

That’s not the end, and I won’t spoil what happens. Just know that Chandor asks us ‘when is there nothing left to fight for?’ until the film’s final moments. This is a wonderful coupling of an master actor nearing the end of his run (but obviously not his powers) and a new emerging talent behind the camera. If Chandor’s early success is any indication of where his career is heading, then we’re all in for a treat.

Grade: A-

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