The rugged literary contours of the old man and the sea – with all the echoes of Hemingway and the allegorical heft of Melville and Conrad – take on stark, lyrical new significance in “All Is Lost,” sophomore writer-director J.C. Chandor’s splendidly gripping duet with taciturn, sun-leathered star Robert Redford.
In only his second film after 2011’s fine “Margin Call,” a talky and complex examination of Wall Street chicanery, Chandor displays amazing skill, versatility and smarts in doing a confidant about-face and constructing a stripped-down, virtually wordless tale of man versus nature that gives Redford one of the great roles of his distinguished acting career.
Now 77 and weathered into a potent and autumnal movie-star presence, Redford assumes the solitary lead role (listed in the credits simply as “our man”) with all the masculine grace of a classic American hero. It’s a punishing role demanding lots of intimate physical hardship, silent soulfulness and battering, waterlogged stunt work that the actor performs with the stoical, vanity-free ease of a veteran at the peak of his powers.
The plot is seemingly simple yet rife with philosophical portent. Too much synopsis here would spoil the suspense, but the basic narrative finds our man sailing solo on the vast, empty waters of the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and Madagascar. Sometime in the night, his sailboat collides with a lost shipping container, leaving our man adrift on a damaged ship, a jagged hole in its hull and the radio transmitter destroyed.
Little is revealed about our man, except that he has the resources and leisure to sail about on his own and that he’s possessed of an admirable technical competence; nagging ghosts of his past are merely implied.
Over the course of eight days lost at sea, he endures loneliness, existential uncertainty, a ferocious storm, the imminent threat of sinking, and through it all our man’s fate hangs precariously in the balance.
Yet, in the simplicity of the adventure (all the way through to its decidedly ambiguous outcome) Chandor sustains a thrilling dramatic tension by focusing on the urgent, elemental details of survival and essential questions of mortality. In this, the film shares some amazing parallels with the current, and far more busily produced, lost-in-space epic, “Gravity.”
In this age of overblown action choreography, overused computer effects and numbing onslaughts of mindless violence, “All Is Lost” is an action movie in the purest, truest sense. Here, the action is meaningful, the stakes are truly gut wrenching and our hero is heroic on a genuinely human scale.
In the glam firmament of Hollywood stardom, Redford might be a larger-the-life figure, but ironically he’s achieved one of his greatest triumphs by taking on the humble, unglamorous role of a man battered by nature, dwarfed by the elements, yet standing tall against cruel fate. In “All Is Lost,” for Redford and Chandor, indeed, all is won.
- Dennis King
“All Is Lost”
Starring: Robert Redford
(Brief strong language)