It's hard to imagine being farther off the grid than the weathered yachtsman played by Robert Redford in the majestic, melancholy “All Is Lost.” There he is, solo on a 39-foot sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, taking on water after a freak accident: During the night, while he slept, his boat struck a drifting shipping container, and a corner of the giant corrugated metal box pierced its hull.
Redford's nameless mariner wakes up to find the contents of his galley bobbing like rubber duckies in a bath. But he isn't panicking. He goes about patching the hole, pumping out the water — although, with the electricity out, this is no easy feat.
And the radio and radar are offline, too. He has a manual for celestial navigation, and a sextant, which he'll have to figure out how to use.
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, whose previous film, “Margin Call,” was the polar opposite — clipped, talky, set in the teeming canyons and corridors of Wall Street — “All Is Lost” is as simple a tale of survival as it gets. A man, a boat, the sea, the sky.
And all the questions of our lives — how we relate to our families, our loved ones, how we think of death, do we believe in a God, an afterlife — are there to consider. To consider wordlessly, because, with the exception of an opening voice-over and a guttural profanity aimed at the heavens, Redford's man (identified only as “Our Man” in the end credits) hardly speaks. There is no one to speak to.
Instead, we hear the creak and yaw of the boat, the waves lapping against its side, the — uh-oh — rumble of thunder and roar of a storm.
“All Is Lost” — whose ending is open to interpretation without necessarily being ambiguous — explores themes remarkably similar to those in Alfonso Cuaron's “Gravity.” The crisis of Sandra Bullock's astronaut, spinning in a crippled craft in space, is even brought about in the same way, by a surreal onslaught of debris. But where “Gravity” frames its isolated humans in the vast, zero-g expanse, “All Is Lost” uses that most primal element, water. It covers more than two-thirds of the Earth, and Our Man and his boat are specks caught in its currents. The sun beats down, the stars arch overhead.
How he got here, and why, are questions only partially answered by the narration that opens the film. What we know: he is on his own, and he has left loved ones behind, with some heartache, and regret, and sense of failure.
Redford, his skin as burned and leathery as someone who has spent years sailing (or skiing and hiking and riding in his Sundance home), delivers a performance as powerful and soulful as it is quiet and indrawn. He is on screen just about every minute, and lets all his vanity go — a hardy septuagenarian gingerly pulley-ing himself up the mast to try to fix his radar, or dangling by ropes and rigging off the boat's side, or hunched over a book, a can of food. There is incredible tension in this ordeal, this effort to survive, to find rescue and Redford — an icon of the American film experience for more than half a century now — makes that tension deeply palpable.
Those blue eyes have never looked less cocky, less certain, more overwhelmed by the magnitude of his predicament.
And in the grander, metaphoric view, it's a predicament we all could find ourselves in, some time, some place: abandoned, navigating existence with only our minds, and spirits, to keep us on course — or throw us desperately off.
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All Is Lost
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Theater: Film Streams