Robert Redford is one of cinema’s all-time greats and “All Is Lost” is a wonderful reminder of why.
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, “All Is Lost” is about as minimalist as a film can get. There are only about a half dozen lines in the entire film. There are no other characters. Redford’s character is given no name or back story other than being credited simply as “Our Man.” It relies entirely on the strength of Redford’s performance and his ability to draw us in and it simply would not have worked with a lesser actor in place.
We are thrust almost immediately into Our Man’s predicament. His yacht has collided with a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. With his radio and communications equipment irreparably damaged from the ship’s gushing wound, and more than a thousand miles from habitable land, Our Man has only his wits and determination to keep him alive.
Redford is remarkable here. There’s something about his presence that lends an immediately sense of credibility to the character. We don’t know anything about him, save for that he has lingering regrets that are only vaguely hinted at from his opening narration. He speaks to no one, not even to himself. And yet there’s an intriguing mix of both confidence and fear, strength and weariness and experience and vulnerability that Redford exudes simply by inhabiting the frame. That’s the sort of command and presence that you can only achieve by a lifetime of great acting, and it’s the precise sort of baggage necessary for a film like this to succeed.
Redford hasn’t done much in the last few years, but I find it refreshing and even a bit exhilarating that he’s still up for tackling roles that would have been a huge challenge even when he was at his most active. When far too many actors of his generation are simply coasting along (Robert De Niro and Alan Arkin, I’m looking at you), Redford is still pushing himself forward.
It’s also the sort of physically demanding role that you rarely see actors of his age take on. Our Man gets tossed about as any lone sailor would in his situation, capsizing his boat and life raft and generally being nasty. Certainly there was a stuntman or two used for a few moments, but for the most part it looks like Redford took his lumps fairly well.
Chandor deserves as much praise as his actor, though. When it comes to tell your story entirely through visuals, editing and pacing, the only other film that comes close is “Gravity.” I think Cuaron’s outer space nail-biter is the more exciting film overall, but it also gave itself some narrative and script-level luxuries that Chandor doesn’t grant.
The film is stark and relentless in the way it never gives Our Man a moment’s respite or reprieve, but it also does so in a surprisingly subtle way. Chandor never goes for bombast or sweeping emotional tugs. Instead, he lets it play out from moment to moment, ebbing and flowing in a series of conflicts and resolutions. It’s an intimate film, one that in its broader strokes is a story of pure survival, allowing for Redford’s performance to deliver the nuance and emotion.
There’s a particular old school feel to “All Is Lost” that simply doesn’t come around often anymore. In that respect, it should come as little surprise that someone like Redford would be so attracted to such a director and project. It’s a film that stands nicely beside one of his earlier works, “Jeremiah Johnson.”
This is an excellent film, one that I look forward to revisiting at some point, as I know there’s certainly much more to chew on. If nothing else, “All Is Lost” is a perfect calling card for Chandor. This is only his second film but he exudes a confidence and skill that signal potentially great things. Here’s hoping.