We're all, of course, floating on a liferaft under a burning sky and adrift on harsh seas, hoping against all common sense for some sort of salvation. But for Robert Redford's unnamed character in J.C. Chandor's ("Margin Call") magnificent "All is Lost" it is no metaphor.
We open with a little voice over, a vague note accepting responsibility, asking for forgiveness, and assuring that the author fought as long as he could. The imagery is gorgeous, endless gray waters merging with a rosy-fingered dawn above. After a title card reading "eight days earlier" we see Redford asleep in the cabin of a high-end yacht. In rushes water and, strangely, shoes.
Without cursing, and not too abruptly, he heads out too see what's wrong. There's a gash in the hull and something is penetrating in the worst of all possible spots, his communications hub. His computers and radio are wrecked and once topside Redford realizes a giant container filled with shoes, fallen overboard from a larger cruiser, has bashed into the side of his ship.
Without panicking the able and well-dressed outdoorsman is able to free his yacht (and snag back the piece of gear he though he'd sacrificed to do it.) This is the recurring, essential beat of the film. The Fates will throw a problem Redford's way, he will calmly and rationally respond.
With his computer equipment shot he has no way to know a massive storm is coming and rides right into it. He is nearly killed as his tasteful ship is batted around like a toy in a tub. After surviving the night (and a bash to the head) he recognizes he must head into a liferaft before it sinks. He carefully stocks up his provisions and then, wouldn't you know it, another storm.
Redford isn't an old salt (he needs to consult a text to use a sextant) but he's smart and logical hell. He's quick to figure out how to collect potable condensation, what to do when his raft is capsized and he surmises that if he's ever going to get rescued he must make his way to the shipping lanes on the sea chart. He only breaks down when an act of precaution he took is neutered by chance. It's as if he'll gladly take the other problems on the chin, but when his clever workarounds are swatted down that's just going too far.
His "break" is, actually, the only lines of spoken dialogue. And it's not a line - it's a word. A four letter word that most of us would have been shouting since the beginning. Here, really, is where star power kicks in.
Not any schmoe can play this role. It takes a screen legend with whom all audiences have a preexisting relationship. Redford is in every single shot of the film and his performance is terrific. By and large he's stoic, but he's not inhuman. He keeps his grunts to a minimum while he takes his lumps, but we're always aware of just what he's strategizing. Not for a minute does he ever think he won't get out of this somehow - not until the very end when he goes for broke on one final way to get noticed by the passing ships in the night.
There are only trace elements of backstory in "All Is Lost." You can try and parse the opening voice over message, or wonder what to make of the card he finds but doesn't read. I'm more interested in the social commentary. Redford is clearly no pauper. His ring and watch are all very Robb Report. It is safe to assume that some sort of commercial industry got him this yacht. And yet, it is industry that destroys him. He's in the Sumatra Straits (where Captain Bligh sailed his open-boat journey, by the way) and it's a container of cheap shoes that is the first attack against him. Later, the giant container ships - run by computers and not "sailor men" - coldly ignore his flares and calls for help. The ships of giant industry are simply too big to notice an individual caught in their wake.
Chandor and his team are to be applauded for shooting this film as cleanly as possible. The action is terrific and intense. The music is minimal but when it comes it goes for the throat. Shots from underwater looking up at the round black raft at the center of the blue sky resemble irises, just a whiff of some of the visual symbolism that's to come in the final sequence of judgement.
Only an ass would tell you how this movie ends, but I will let you know that "All Is Lost" makes a choice - and it's a perfect one. Form bow to stern, Chandor delivers pure cinema. Thrilling and adventuresome, this is a career highlight from the uniquely sympathetic Robert Redford. I know he's committed to the next "Captain America" film but if I were him I'd do whatever I could to wiggle out of that contract and retire on top. He's a lock for every award imaginable, but more than that he's a symbol for the enduring spirit of will under harsh, unendurable circumstances.
SCORE: 9.1 / 10