Water World: Robert Redford Gives the Performance of a Lifetime in All Is Lost

J.C. Chandor’s minimalist survival-at-sea saga is unforgettable

Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

Robert Redford has never won an Academy Award for acting, but this could be the year his luck changes. All Is Lost is a magnificent one-man show that could win big-time.

As much as I hated the boring Wall Street ensemble talk-athon Margin Call, writer-director J. C. Chandor has switched gears dramatically, creating a breathtakingly exciting but minimalist survival-at-sea saga with a single character who speaks no more than a few words of dialogue yet keeps you frozen with concentration from start to finish. Of course, if you’re going to risk a whole movie on the roulette wheel of a single performance, you better bet the farm on Mr. Redford. At 77, he can no longer be mistaken for the glamorous 8 x 10 glossy from The Way We Were, but nobody can single-handedly hold a movie audience hostage for nearly two hours like he does. All Is Lost is movie magic on many levels but most importantly as the rare opportunity to watch a seasoned actor at the pinnacle of his power.

The narrative seems deceptively basic. About 1,700 nautical miles from the straits of Sumatra, a nameless sailor listed in the credits simply as Our Man, on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, awakens from a peaceful nap to discover his 39-foot sailboat has been broadsided by a floating cargo container from an unseen freighter, gashing a major rupture into the side. Water is gushing in, the power has failed, the living quarters are flooded, and the radio is out. He’s not an amateur—he mixes enough glue to seal the hole in the skiff, he knows how to build a pump, and he’s enough of a carpenter to repair the damaged floors in the hold. But his luck goes from rotten to worse.

He has enough gas to use the stove and open a can of organic beans, and there’s still the half-full bottle of Scotch in the galley to steady frayed nerves in an emergency. Despite the damage to the hull, he can survive—as long as he can fix the busted radio, the clean drinking water doesn’t run out and the weather holds. Then you hear the thunder, softly rolling in the distance, getting closer. The storm that lashes him unconscious almost finishes off what’s left of his energy. All does seem to be lost after he summons the strength to inflate the rubber lifeboat and transfer whatever he can salvage while drifting in the open water, and the frustration is palpable when he uses up the rest of his flares to attract two passing ships that cruise by without hearing his screams for help. Finally, with his rations and water running out, surrounded by circling sharks, despair sets in. The finale is heart-stopping.

Mr. Chandor does an astoundingly economical job of chronicling each nautical triumph and devastating setback without the usual Hollywood action clichés. We know the man has a family he thinks he has failed, but nothing more is ever revealed. The film is, refreshingly, without unnecessary character analysis or numbing flashbacks, yet we know all we need to know about Our Man from what Mr. Redford sees and feels. It’s in his furrowed brow when he uses the sun to burn the brine out of the water supply. We don’t need words. And we certainly don’t need the intrusion of metaphors about how he grows through his ordeal.

Goodness knows what this movie would be like without the brute force of Mr. Redford’s intelligence, focus and self-confidence. Bruised and bleeding, it’s a physically and emotionally grueling role and a downright dangerous assignment, as well as something of an endurance test for Mr. Redford and the audience alike, with the star doing most of his own stunts and nearly drowning in the process. And the film contains so many of the Mr. Redford’s own personal qualities that it’s uncanny—the innate intuition to do the right thing when everything tanks, the calm demeanor in the eye of the storm, the perfectionism. Battered but durable as a scratched, second-hand tackle box, he’s still the Sundance Kid in boat sneakers. The face has grown rough as a bad detour, but hard knocks for originality and craft in an industry dedicated to imitation and fraud have earned him every line. It’s an honor to salute his longevity in a film as deserving as All Is Lost. For someone so terrified of water I won’t set foot on anything smaller than the QE2, it made my hair stand on end from start to finish.

ALL IS LOST

Written by: J.C. Chandor

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Robert Redford

Running time: 106 min.

Rating: 4/4