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Robert Redford keeps the film afloat, even as his character has no such luck with his boat, in All Is Lost, a rugged, virtually dialogue-free survival-at-sea story that sustains attention against considerable odds. Some may dub it Life of Pi without the tiger, but while the stranded seafarer situation is the same, the intent and tone are decidedly different.J.C. Chandor, whose excellent first feature Margin Call was most distinguished by its terrific dialogue, goes the opposite way here with a Hemingwayesque story devoted entirely to physical externals.
Redford’s exceptional performance will serve as the primary commercial calling card for Lionsgate upon October release. The Old Man and the Sea certainly represents a template for this straightforward, intensely focused tale of a man battling the elements, although Chandor has stripped his drama of any extra baggage, be it allegorical, metaphorical or spiritual. It is what it is, just about a man exercising his skill and limited options in the face of happenstance, bad luck and whatever nature decides to throw at him. Which is plenty. The most one hears of Redford’s voice comes right at the beginning in a bit of voiceover as his nameless character (called “Our Man” in the end credits) repeatedly says, in words no doubt intended for whatever family he may have, “I’m sorry,” while adding that he always tried to love, to be good, to be right, and that “I fought to the end.” After that, no narration, no interiormonologue.
Cut back to eight days earlier and the beginning of the end, a large metal ship container full of sneakers that’s bashed into his 39-foot sailboat, cutting a hole in its side that allows sea water to pour into the cabin. The man is able to slowly pump water out of the Virginia Jean and finally manages makeshift patch job, but his electronic equipment has been ruined. To do a small repair, he hoists himself up the towering mast (the view from the top is vertigo-inducing), but a storm is brewing, one that, when it arrives, startlingly turns the boat upside-down, then up again, knocking the man out in the process and bloodily gashing forehead. The boat’s leak reopens, forcing him, at the film’s 48-minute point, to abandon ship, with limited supplies, in favor of a large inflatable covered raft.
He does retain a sextant, with which he manages to navigate north into the Indian Ocean shipping lane that points toward the Sumatra straits; at least here, he might be spotted by a passing vessel.
Up to this point, there is very little music, so one is left to observe and ponder many things, both about the film itself and, given the opportunity for one’s mind to wander occasionally, matters outside of it. Still, the overwhelmingly unavoidable subject of contemplation while watching All Is Lost is Robert Redford—his looks, his bearing, his acting, his career. The star spent far too many years carefully trying to maintain his handsome youthful demeanor, remaining off the screen for long periods and then making overly cautious, sometimes calamitous choices when he did choose to return.
Now, in his mid-70s, he’s suddenly working all the time again, as he did after he broke through as a star (and producer, then director), and it’s as if he’s decided the hell with it, let’s get in the trenches, I’ll show my age and wrinkles and creases and leathery skin (he still looks great, of course, just not young anymore), I’ll give it all I got physically, take risks and make choices I wouldn’t have ten years ago and keep working until nobody wants to see me anymore.
Based on the evidence here, that day won’t come anytime soon, as Redford, who can’t avoid exuding charisma, plays this role with utter naturalism and lack of histrionics or self-regard. He gives no notion of seeking to impress, as if having no actors sharing the stage with him has mysteriously induced him to let down his guard. Despite his character’s peril, most of the time he’s performing ordinary, mundane physical tasks that are not particularly interesting in and of themselves; Redford just does them, with no sense of being watched. At this, he is compelling, although his performance reaches its pinnacle in a small moment after he writes a note, sticks it in a bottle and then hesitates to throw it in the ocean.
It’s as if, by tossing it in, he accepts defeat and the idea of ever seeing another human being again. In the event, Our Man (for he does become that) encounters more than one ship in the busy corridor, not to mention sharks among the usual watery dangers. But no lemurs. He never mutters to himself, issues casual expletives when things go wrong, rages at God or curses his fate. But when he finally explodes with one word, it’s a doozy. What happens in the end is never tipped, remaining in question until the final moment.
Chandor certainly set a major technical challenge for himself here and he carries it off well; using widescreen and mostly wide-angle lenses, the shots he devised with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco are generally tight and fluid but not in-your-face or jittery, and the editing is coherent. The general feel is one of creative resourcefulness and intelligent industry rather than radical experimentalism or creative cliff-diving. The score by Alex Ebert is quite varied, both in sound and effectiveness.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)
Opens: October 18 (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Production: Before the Door Pictures, Washington Square Films
Cast: Robert Redford
Director: J.C. Chandor
Screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, Teddy Schwartzman
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Howard Cohen, Eric D’Arbeloff, Rob Barnum, Kevin Turen, Corey Moosa, Zachary Quinto
Director of photography: Frank G. DeMarco
Underwater director of photography: Peter Zuccarini
Production designer: John P. Goldsmith
Costume designer: Van Broughton Ramsey
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
Music: Alex Ebert
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