Imagine an alternate-universe version of the lean, relentlessly taciturn survival tale "All Is Lost," featuring a different actor than the film's one and only performer, Robert Redford.
Had, for example, the drama starred Woody Allen (at 77, the same age as Redford) as the sailor undergoing the trials and tribulations of the unnamed character's Indian Ocean shipwreck, we'd no doubt have gotten a full quotient of realistic muttered asides and "Aahhhh, jeezes" and "Oh, terrific, now I got sharks to deal with." Or put Morgan Freeman, a year younger than Redford or Allen, in the role, and you can picture the man attempting to voice-over his way to safety — vocally impressing the elements and Nature Herself into submission.
But Redford it is. And "All Is Lost" and its near-speechlessness, as conceived by writer-director J.C. Chandor, suit the hardy movie star's tight-lipped charisma to a T.
Like "Gravity," this less obviously commercial film breathes the cinematic oxygen of pure visual peril. Straight off, Redford's character is heard on the soundtrack, for the first and last time, writing what sounds like a farewell letter. It is a note of contrition, apologizing to what we assume to be his family ("I'm sorry. … I fought to the end").
Chandor then rewinds to eight days earlier, when this man, sailing his 39-foot craft called the Virginia Jean, runs afoul of a massive stray shipping container holding hundreds of sneakers. His boat takes a gash to the hull, water starts rushing in, and "our man" (as he's listed in the credits) quietly, nearly wordlessly slips into rescue mission mode. About halfway through "All Is Lost," Redford abandons ship after a wild storm and ends up in a life raft with some emergency supplies, including a sextant for navigation and some flares. The mission, he determines, is to head toward the shipping lanes where he has a chance of being spotted before it's too late.
Chandor's previous and first feature, the financial-meltdown drama "Margin Call," was all talk. "All Is Lost" has its sliver of voice-over at the top, plus a single, choice cry from a heavily burdened heart delivered by Redford. But mainly we hear only the sounds of forces beyond human control: wind, rain, the slap of water against watercraft. The director's experience with "Margin Call," which took place largely around boardroom tables in confined urban spaces, serves him well for "All Is Lost." Here, his camera captures one crisis and threat and resolution after another in tight quarters, backed by a forbidding horizon. Watching Redford's character in a rough physical environment, taking care of business, is neither the background nor the foreground of "All Is Lost." It is the entire story.
Redford isn't precisely stretching his range as an actor here or revealing a new side to us. Rather, he's finding the cleanest, clearest way to express a quiet man's wiles and resources. We don't know who he is, or where he's been, or what he's done. We only know what he's doing in the threatening here and now, one day at a time. Chandor, Redford and company filmed in Mexico's Rosarito Beach Baja Studios, in a huge water tank built for the filming of "Titanic." The film has a quietly relentless quality. Redford is fully engaged and vital.
I'll leave it to others to read greatness into "All Is Lost." It's enough that it's good.
"All Is Lost" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)
Running time: 1:46