The most iconic moment, arguably, from Robert Redford’s acting career is a scene from the middle of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Redford) evade their pursuers on the side of a cliff that overlooks a river full of rocks and rapids. Butch offers to escape the chase by jumping into the river. Sundance refuses. He yells, “I can’t swim!” to a cackling Butch. “Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ya,” Butch tells him. A moment later, the two outlaws jump into the river, with the Sundance Kid yelling a high-pitched curse word.
45 years later, Robert Redford once again plunges into stormy seas in All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s sophomore feature. Almost the exact opposite of Chandor’s dialogue-heavy debut, Margin Call, which boasted a big ensemble cast, All Is Lost stars one actor (Redford) without a character name and contains almost no dialogue.
Redford’s character is credited as “Our Man,” although he gets no backstory. All the viewer knows at the start is that he is marooned at sea for eight days, 1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits. Throughout this journey, Our Man navigates through the Indian Ocean to a pathway for shipping boats with the hope that one of them will rescue him. One morning, Our Man wakes up to find a big gash in his sailboat, caused by a shipping container that floated off course. With water leaking in, ruining his electronics – his sole connection to get a signal from the coastline – he has to patch up the hole to ensure his yacht does not sink.
Our sole performer has the tricky task of captivating our attention for 106 minutes without speaking too much. Redford commits to this tempest-tossed role, bringing gravitas to wincing and wearying through a tumultuous storm, beckoning to be returned to safety and normality. It is a physically enduring and soul-searching performance, although the actor rarely cries out in ache or anger. His face, stoic and weathered, tells the story as well as any dialogue-filled tale could.
This tale of survival doesn’t have the benefit of a Richard Parker character or the maelstrom of dazzling CGI that Life of Pi had. Instead, Chandor’s man versus the elements story remains riveting through most of its running time due to gritty audio-visual aspects. On deck, the cinematography from Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini is blustery and seasick, placing the viewer at the helm of the sail and strewing us around during the storm. Underneath, in Our Man’s tight living chambers, the sound design is impeccable, with creaking wood and crashing waves giving a sense of place within a confined space.
Without the net of dialogue and characterization, All is Lost rests almost entirely on Redford’s bruised shoulders. The results are often harrowing and miraculous, although occasionally tedious as his character’s day-to-day activities become monotonous. In the last third of the film, when Our Man is imperilled and closest to death, All Is Lost starts losing our attention. By this time, Redford is worn out yet hopeful that he will be rescued; likewise, at this point the film’s major setpiece, a perfect storm, has already happened and we wait for something more to imperil the character further. These are the scenes where Our Man most directly confronts his own mortality, and the battered actor only has so many moments to express his predicament before it turns repetitive.
Even if All Is Lost feels overstretched, Redford keeps us engaged in this harrowing life-and-death scenario, where one is constantly intrigued at how the resourceful sailor will adapt to the next obstacle. Like the recent box-office smash Gravity, All Is Lost focuses on one person facing the brutal elements of nature and, as a result, his or her own mortality. Instead of the emptiness of space, though, we get the wavy monotony of the ocean. Stranded and solitary, Redford brings to the fore a commanding lead performance that is nearly wordless but entirely captivating.
Stranded and alone as he battles the stormy sea and his mortality, Robert Redford delivers a commanding lead performance in All Is Lost, a nearly wordless but captivating drama from J.C. Chandor.