The prophetically titled All Is Lost requires us to surrender wholesale to the idea that a man in his late-70s would sail alone 1,700 nautical miles off the coast of Sumatra, survive being capsized not once, not twice, but four times over the course of two violent gales that would’ve left the cast of The Perfect Storm a splintered mess, untangle himself from a tattered sail while underwater, swim with the deft ease of a Michael Phelps after days with no food and little water, and repair a gaping hole in the side of his boat that happened courtesy of the shipping container he crashed into at the beginning of the movie. How his boat ran smack into the only floating shipping container within God knows how many miles of the Indian Ocean is a mystery best left to the Fates.
All Is Lost features one of the bravest, strongest, and luckiest old men I’ve ever seen on film. We never learn much about him, other than he wears a wedding ring, he’s a resourceful sailor, and he’s played by Robert Redford, who looks very much how I hope to look when I’m almost eighty. His sailboat is christened the Virginia Jean. His wife? His mother? Perhaps a daughter. The movie doesn’t say. We learn this small detail as he makes a distress call on his damaged radio. The shipping container, as I said, happens early, and the man goes about fixing this potentially catastrophic situation with almost bland detachment. Back afloat, he encounters the first of two storms that will eventually sink his boat and leave him floating at sea in an oversized life raft. At one point, he’s brazen enough to re-board his sinking craft and rescue the sextant that will allow him to plot his path straight into a shipping lane. As Murphy’s Law kicks in and everything that can go wrong does, the man reveals himself to be a gifted Macguyver of the high seas, good with glue and string, a knife, rope, radios, batteries, and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on.
Much of what I’ve told you so far sounds like Robert Redford afloat at sea for nearly two hours. That’s exactly what this is. Other than a brief narrative at the open, the film contains exactly one line of dialogue and a choice expletive screamed resoundingly to the heavens. None of it’s boring. Writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose only previous film, Margin Call, was a critical success, keeps things moving along, and even manages a few virtuoso scenes of filmmaking. (One of the capsizings is actually filmed from inside the boat’s tiny stateroom, with no windows to the outside world to right the viewer’s orientation.) Frankly, I was surprised to see a film with no dialogue and focused on a single character maintain such a brisk pace.
It’s clear Chandor is a talented filmmaker, but the fact is, no amount of technical expertise can disguise the fact that all of this is really pretty silly when you’ve had a chance to digest it. I’m refusing to give in to the temptation to spoil a few other things for you, in the interest of defending my point that this isn’t a very good movie. So, I’ll leave it at this: a trio of scenes involving possible rescue go so horribly wrong by stretching our disbelief that it’s difficult to take the movie very seriously. In one unbelievable scene near the end of the film, the man in peril suddenly forgets all his training and God-given gifts of Macguyvering, and makes a mistake so stupid, it pretty much drags the movie — and us — underwater, kicking and screaming. Chandor tries to touch on deeper themes of aging and mortality, but they’re lost in the screenplay’s troubling construction.
Much has been made of Robert Redford’s performance. As of now, he’s the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. I can only say I don’t understand the attention. Yes, it’s great to see the legendary star in such a physically demanding role; he attacks everything Chandor throws at him with vigor. Unfortunately, he plays the part of a man facing a cold and lonely death with all the emotional thrust of a tax audit. It’s a one-note performance from first frame to last, with almost no range. I wanted to care about this man, about his situation; but by the time everything was said and done, I didn’t really care. Harsh, perhaps, but there it is.
(A note: I’m giving the movie 2 stars, which is, frankly, more than I think it deserves. But there’s actually some good filmmaking at work here. Maybe see it for the technical achievement, but be prepared for unforgivable lapses in the screenplay and Redford’s robotic performance.)