Batten down the hatches for All is Lost, the unusual new sailing drama from writer-director J.C. Chandor. The only actor on screen for 106 minutes is 77-year-old Robert Redford, and words are pared down to a bare minimum, but all is riveting.
Redford plays an unnamed sailor, out on his own in the Indian Ocean, who encounters serious, and escalating, trouble. That's the story. Go ahead and log your Old Man and the Sea jokes. I'll wait. The truth is that Redford, though no spring chicken, remains preternaturally vital, his performance equally impressive in its physical action and its minutely detailed projection of moment-to-moment thought and feeling. With calm confidence, he holds the screen.
Chandor made the scene two years ago with the excellent Wall Street drama Margin Call, and he's made a canny choice to follow up that highly verbal, even theatrical film with All is Lost, which has the elemental impact of a silent film.
There are mechanics at play here, certainly those of sailing and perhaps those of fate. As a "man vs. wild" adventure in the Jack London mode (and perhaps reminiscent of the 1972 Redford vehicle Jeremiah Johnson), All is Lost has plenty of fearsome moments, but the deeper fears are existential: man in mortal contention with an indifferent universe. For those willing to go there, the picture serves as a poetic allegory for aging and contemplation of the void. Everyone dies alone, so they say, though that's not to imply Redford's character does: no spoilers here.
Admittedly, that's not going to be date-night material for everybody ("Honey, how about All is Lost? That sounds fun"). But viewers of a certain age will get more out of the picture, in part because of their built-in relationship with the star. Though Redford is playing a character, it's not hard to project him onto the role. It could just as well be him: a man of some means and ingenuity whose force of will and creativity rise to the occasion when tested.
The intimacy All is Lost forges between the viewer and this modern Everyman contributes to a sustained suspense (so too do the crack work of composer Alex Ebert and editor Pete Beaudreau). It's unfortunate that All is Lost has to follow the tough act of Alfonso Cuaron's hit movie Gravity, given their narrative and thematic overlap. Gravity's terrific, but Chandor's film is yet more uncompromising and visceral for being "down to earth."