Perhaps not since “Cast Away” has a movie been more concentrated on a single performance than “All is Lost”. And it’s interesting that this film also features survival elements involving the sea. But unlike “Cast Away” there is no supporting cast. There is no interaction between characters. There is only 77-year old Robert Redford in what may be the most physically demanding role of his long career.
The film opens with an unnamed man reciting what sounds like a short goodbye note. Moving back eight days, we see the man is awoken when his yacht collides with a cargo container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. With a hole in the hull and water gushing into his cabin, the man immediately tries to fix the problem. This launches our time with this character as he faces one challenge after another for the next eight days – challenges brought on by the sea and the elements.
“All is Lost” is unique in that we get no backstory whatsoever. We are never told who this man is or why he is so far out at sea by himself. We do glean small fragments of information throughout the film. For example the opening narration leads you to believe there is a family he has left behind. We also get scenes that show a wedding band on his finger. Could he still be married? Could his wife have recently died? Writer and director J.C. Chandor doesn’t take us by the hand and spell everything out for us. His film allows us to put these pieces together in our minds and come up with our own solutions.
Chandor’s first film was 2011’s ultra-talky “Margin Call”. This movie couldn’t be more different. Aside from the short opening narration, Redford has only three lines of dialogue (if you can call them that) in the entire movie. The bulk of his performance is physical and through expression. It’s truly marvelous work. Unlike most, I have always been a bit mixed when it comes to Redford’s movies. There’s no apprehension here. Redford is great. He gives an ‘every man’ performance without an ounce of his once prominent ‘golden boy’ artifice. He tells us so much through a gesture or an action. It’s a remarkably understated performance that doesn’t rely on big showy scenes or spotlights.
Now we do get some of the familiar plot developments – shark attacks, punishing storms, depleted supplies, etc. Yet despite that the film feels remarkably fresh and invigorating. Perhaps it’s the connection we have with Redford’s character. Maybe it’s the circumstances which we are thrown into. I was wrapped up in all of it and even though some of the plot devices were conventional, there is still an undeniable attraction to this ‘man versus sea’ tale.
Hats off to J.C. Chandor for creating a small but gripping picture that may embrace familiar devices but that brilliantly carves its own path. With only a man, a boat, and the vast sea Chandor shows his versatility as a filmmaker by embracing the confines of his environment and making a movie that feels grander than it may be. But to be honest, I love it’s simplicity. I love it’s focus. And I love the performance from Redford. “All is Lost” may not work for everyone, but it sure worked for me.