Call it The Old Hunk and the Sea. With All Is Lost, matinee idol for the ages Robert Redford sheds all vanity to play a man struggling to survive against long odds in J.C. Chandor’s first feature since he burst on the scene with 2011’s acclaimed talk fest Margin Call. The writer/director veers into a completely different direction with this thriller, a near-silent drama that offers Redford a solo spotlight. The actor answers with one of his finest performances in years.
The credits refer to the 76-year-old Redford’s character as simply “Our Man.” Apparently a well-off retiree who heeded the siren song of the sea, he is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean when catastrophe hits and his boat is damaged. There is worse to come with bad weather and even worse luck. With electrical systems down, a busted radio and no GPS, Our Man’s best chance for survival is to set a course the old-fashioned way using the sun, moon, stars and nautical charts to find a shipping lane where a passing freighter might spot him. The pleasure cruise turns into a constant battle to stay afloat so that he might make it that far.
Shot in the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the huge Baja, Mexico filming tank that James Cameron built when he made Titanic, All Is Lost derives plenty of suspense from the imagery alone of a small vessel against a great expanse of water. Add to that all the things that befall the boat and the advanced age of the sailor and the ingredients are in place for a first-class thriller. But Chandor takes a big risk with a story that is almost dialogue-free and a character who can’t help but remain an enigma with no name and no back story. We know little about Our Man other than that he’s elderly, still athletic and competent. It is up to Redford to make us care and he does that beautifully with a graceful performance that quietly expresses equal measures of vulnerability, strength, heart and a will to live that cannot be quenched even in the most dire of circumstances. All Is Lost is a suspenseful thriller, but what makes its special is its human drama of one man pitted against the merciless sea. – Pam Grady