“All is Lost,” featuring Robert Redford as the sole actor, will not be everybody’s cup of tea. Even those committed to seeing it may have a tough time finding it nearby, as it is in very limited release. The movie contains only two brief bits of dialogue — actually monologue, if we’re counting — and there’s no sex or violence or laugh lines. All of these conventional attractions for moviegoers are, well, lost.
What remains is a superb example of the power of film to convey dramatic tension by paring down a story to its essentials. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s only previous feature-length movie, 2011’s “Margin Call,” could not be more different in subject and treatment. There, he dealt with Wall Street in the early stages of the financial crisis which threatened the world economy. Here, he shows the life-threatening situation of one man, simply named Our Man, as he tries to save first his boat and, finally, himself from drowning in the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Whether he does so is left somewhat ambiguous, Chandor allowing room for debate and providing material for at least two equally plausible interpretations.
At the outset, Our Man narrates in voice-over a letter he is writing apologizing for his actions, though neither the recipient(s) nor the address are known. Much of the rest of the film catches up to this moment, when he finishes the letter, putting it in a jar and tossing it into the sea. The story’s action proper begins “eight days earlier,” as a derelict cargo container full of athletic shoes bashes a hole in his 39-foot sailboat, submerging and wrecking his radio and electrical equipment. (Some critics have read this and several subsequent scenes as an oblique commentary on international capitalism’s destructiveness, but that feels like a stretch.)
From that point, we watch as the lone sailor contrives and fixes a patch to the hole, hand pumps the water out of the hull, attempts to repair the radio, climbs the mast to check for further damage, learns how to use a sextant, and generally tries to get on with his voyage. All of this activity Redford portrays with strict control, the perilous situation notwithstanding. Chandor keeps the camera tight on the 77-year-old actor’s weathered face, catching the small shifts that portray frustration, apprehension, concern — but never anger or panic, except for a couple of dramatic slips, made the more powerful for their scarcity. Indeed, the one profanity Our Man shouts probably earned the movie its “PG-13” rating.
Chandor’s significant accomplishment is considerably aided by the work of cinematographer Frank DeMarco, the underwater cinematography of Peter Zuccarini, Pete Beaudreau’s precise film editing, and the understated musical score by Alex Ebert, who also composed and sings the song that plays over the closing credits. All of these behind-the-camera artists keep the film moving forward, sustaining its tension without needlessly overdoing it, as movies nowadays are so prone to do.
“All Is Lost” will likely be up for some awards, in large part because of Redford’s bravura performance, which some reviewers have called the crowning achievement of his long, success-filled career. That accolade is likely best left for future judges to consider, but I can easily say this is one the most riveting one-man performances I can recall witnessing. You might have to wait until it wins a few awards and gets broader release or even until the DVD arrives sometime next year. It will be worth it.