Robert Redford gives a performance for the ages in the survival drama “All Is Lost,” in a role that’s remarkable for all the things Redford doesn’t do.
He doesn’t talk, except for an opening voice-over and three scattered moments of dialogue. He doesn’t interact with other performers, because his is the only character in the film. He doesn’t even get the luxury of a name, as writer-director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) refers to him in the credits only as “Our Man” — just one of the ways the movie lets viewers put themselves in Redford’s shoes.
After the voice-over, a regretful end-of-his-rope letter apologizing to those he has left behind, we move forward eight days to the beginning of Our Man’s troubles. He’s on a solo sailing adventure across the Indian Ocean when a lost container box has rammed into the side of the boat. The hole amidships is letting in water and has shorted out the man’s satellite phone and electronic navigational gear. But he perseveres, trying as best he can to patch the hole and keep sailing.
Then come the storms, which send the boat and its captain rocking and reeling. Each setback tests his resourcefulness, his strength and ultimately his will to continue fighting to live.
Like his character, Redford rises to the challenge presented to him by Chandor, to eschew all the extraneous trappings of moviemaking. The wardrobe is limited to a few shirts and a raincoat, the settings reserved to the boat and a life raft. All the “choices,” as pretentious actors like to say, are reduced to a binary option: Do this or your character dies.
Redford’s weathered face shows the mileage of his long, sun-exposed ordeal, but his sharp eyes look out thoughtfully on the horizon and determinedly to the task at hand. He shows signs of his 77 years, but no sign of surrender. His character’s battle with nature is both external (from the storms and sun) and internal (from the aches and pains of age).
Chandor engineers this bold conceit, to put this character in this jam and focus our attention exclusively on his plight, and makes it work with bravura filmmaking. Chandor fills this tight space with details of a life lived well, as the tools that he will need to continue that life. He makes the sailor’s claustrophobia and desire as tangible as the lapping water.
He also understands how “All Is Lost” couldn’t work with an actor less iconic than Redford. The audience must be able to relate to Our Man for 100-plus minutes, and with Redford the audience already has a head start.
We can project onto this character a half-century of fond movie memories — of The Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson, Senate candidate Bill McKay and newsman Bob Woodward, and many other indelible roles — and see someone we know. We have sailed with Redford many times before, and we want to see him safely home.
‘All Is Lost’
As a lone sailor weathering storms in a damaged boat, Robert Redford gives the performance of a lifetime.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running time • 106 minutes.