That’s the notion beautifully realized in J.C. Chandor’s harrowing tale All Is Lost. The film stars Robert Redford, and only Robert Redford. We never learn a thing about him as a man, including his name. We have no idea why he is 1,700 nautical miles away from shore, on a sailboat, alone. We haven’t a clue of his marital status, number of children, or professional occupation. All we know is that he is a man lost, fighting to survive.
So essentially, we have Robert Redford, lost at sea, battling the elements, for 106 relentless minutes. If the film sounds like an exercise, that’s because it is. But certainly not a tired one. In fact, there isn’t a moment in this film that is wasted. It is briskly paced, tediously detailed, and acted to utter perfection. It’s a minimalist thriller that relies on our own fears to propel its narrative. There is no narration telling us how to feel, no dialogue instructing our paranoia, no musical score swaying our emotions. There’s just Our Man and the unforgiving water.
Much has been made of the fact that the film is nearly dialogue free. And, save an appropriate bit of introductory voiceover, that fact is more or less true. Our Man mutters a few words here and there, yells once or twice, but for the most part, Redford’s acting is limited to physicality and emotional expression.
Think about it: how often is an actor required to act with his body? For every scene of the entire film? That’s what Redford is doing here; he’s summoning primal survival instinct with his aged physique. On many occasions during All Is Lost, I wanted to yell at the screen, encouraging Our Man to “Move faster!” But he can’t move faster. He’s old. He takes his time because he has to. Were the character played by a man any younger, All Is Lost wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is.
Using the word “best” to describe a performance of such a revered and veteran actor is dangerous. So I won’t say that Our Man is the best performance Robert Redford has ever given, but I will say that it measures with the best work he’s ever done. As mentioned, we don’t know I thing about him, yet we care about his survival unconditionally. As the film progressed, I became increasingly heartbroken by the elemental failures that weakened Our Man. But my frustrations and fears wouldn’t have existed were they not initially brought to life by such a skilled pro. Much like Tom Hanks’ recent work in Captain Phillips, Robert Redford proves that an actor always has one splendid fight left in him.
Because of the modest structure of All Is Lost, credit needs to be given to everyone responsible for the technical aspects of the film. From the film’s breathtaking photography, to its haunting sound design, to its limited musical score by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert. Everyone works in a harmonious balance to achieve a sense of impending doom.
J.C. Chandor’s only other feature was the star-studded and very chatty financial thriller Margin Call from 2011. Margin Call was a confident debut (one that, ironically, premiered at Redford’s own Sundance Film Festival) that made me anxiously await Chandor’s next project. With All Is Lost, Chandor has seriously upped his game; taking risks that few other filmmakers would attempt. It’s the work of a director running on instinct. Instinct that has yet to steer him wrong. A-