After Margin Call, J.C. Chandor’s smart, talky, somewhat theatrical 2011 debut feature about the frantic last hours at a Lehman Brothers–like bank on the brink of financial meltdown, there couldn’t have been a more unexpected second project for this promising new director than All Is Lost, a stripped-down, nearly wordless tale of survival at sea. Robert Redford plays the film’s sole, unnamed character—the credits identify him as “Our Man”—a veteran sailor piloting his small sailboat through the Indian Ocean. We have no clue how long Our Man has been at sea or plans to remain there, where he comes from, or what his life on shore was like. Except for a brief opening voiceover in which we hear his poignant message-in-a-bottle apology to an unknown party or parties (his family, we assume), this is a man who exists only in the moment. As well he should, given that, after a floating shipping container rams a hole in the side of his craft, Our Man’s life is quickly reduced to a minute-to-minute struggle for survival.
Initially, Redford’s character remarks with almost deadpan equanimity to the apparent direness of his situation—without a word of complaint (or a word, period), he patches up the breach, bails out the boat as best he can, and enjoys a glass of bourbon with his nightly can of pork and beans. But a huge storm at sea soon worsens the damage, knocks him out with a nasty head wound, and worst of all, cuts off all means of communication with the shore. Over the course of eight days, Our Man will eventually be forced to leave his sinking sailboat for a rubber life raft that’s well stocked with survival equipment—a sextant, a stash of emergency flares—but even more subject than the boat was to the fickle whims of the sea. You know that saying about how the toast always falls with the buttered side down? That happens to Our Man on an existential plane for the entirety of this movie, as each of his resourceful, carefully crafted plans for finding food, potable water, and a means of rescue is thwarted by the tragic indifference of nature. Manage to catch a fish after days choking down horrible dry rations, did you, sir? Well, here comes a shark to swipe it off your line at the last second. And the scent of the blood has attracted some more. And they’re circling the raft.
It’s man vs. nature at its Hemingway-esque purest, which sounds like it would make for very heavy symbolic going. But All Is Lost goes light-to-nonexistent on the macho bluster, and also (happily) eschews the soaring spiritual allegories of Life of Pi. At heart, this is a process movie about open-water survival. The story, such as it is, lies in the practical day-to-day choices that Redford’s character makes: Should he hang on to that book of instructions for reading the stars with a sextant, or burn it as fuel? Use up the last flare in an attempt to flag a passing ship, or save it for the next ship that comes along? Hovering over all these small questions is one unimaginably huge one, which comes to dominate the film: When is it time to give up?
The way that Redford’s character—who for all his namelessness and near-wordlessness emerges as a distinct character, a calm, pragmatic, curious man with a dry sense of humor—struggles with that ultimate question is the beating heart of All is Lost, which somewhere in its second hour goes from being a good movie to being a great one. A huge part of the credit for that goes to Redford, who’s the only living actor I can imagine in this role. Our long history of watching him get into scrapes big and small—jumping off the cliff with Butch, breaking the story with Bernstein—can’t help but figure into our deep identification with his stranded character here. (If you think you wanted to see Tom Hanks try to get through his ordeal at sea, just imagine something bad happening to Robert Redford!) And the way time has changed Redford’s legendary, leonine face—turning it into a kind of Easter Island statue of petrified movie-star handsomeness—only makes us love him more. The now 77-year-old star demonstrates unbelievable physical and psychological endurance in this role without giving a performance that’s in the least showy or self-congratulatory. In essence, Redford is simply behaving before our eyes, working out his character’s problems in real time under extreme conditions—and with the exception of that opening voiceover and one well-placed and very loud curse word, in total silence.
J.C. Chandor knows what a jewel he has in Redford, and he creates an appropriately simple, transparent setting. There’s minimal digital trickery here, and no flashbacks, cutaway scenes, or dream sequences to break up the action. The musical theme—a simple, haunting melody by Alex Ebert—is used sparingly and effectively, with natural sound providing most of the sonic backdrop. Very late in the film, as Our Man’s hope of rescue decreases, the images start to take on an ethereal, almost abstract quality: We see the floor of the bobbing raft from far below the surface of the water, the sun streaming through it in a halo-like shape. I won’t describe the magnificent final two or three shots, except to say that All Is Lost’s title—which is also a phrase in that opening voiceover—expresses a sense of despair that its resilient hero is never, God bless him, able to fully embrace.