Watching All Is Lost is a bit like reading an Ernest Hemingway or Jack London short story. In this literal one-man show, Robert Redford stars as a nameless protagonist (he's cheekily credited as "Our Man") who wakes up on his sailboat in the Indian Ocean one morning to find that a loose shipping container has severely damaged it, with seawater ruining all his electricity and radio equipment.
Redford's opening monologue – nearly the only words spoken in the entire picture – announces, in a letter written to some estranged loved ones (his children, I imagine), that"all is lost" after eight days of dealing with a hopeless situation. The film then cuts back to the first of those eight days, as Redford discovers the damage to his boat, then doggedly sets about repairing it.
The utter silence with which Redford slowly and methodically deals with his obstacles may test your patience; it is certainly a marked contrast to Sandra Bullock talking herself through every detail in the conceptually similar survival tale Gravity. But once the inevitable storm looms on the horizon, All Is Lost picks up, and if it's not traditionally suspenseful like Gravity, it maintains a bracing, claustrophobic excitement.
Redford, who throughout his career has mostly played variations on his unflappable, unknowable persona, is quite refreshing here. First of all, despite his almost comical blonde mop, he's unmistakably old in this film. If his character is wise and resourceful and perhaps a bit too physically resilient for his age, there is a weariness in his eyes that reminds you that, whether or not he's going to make it through this catastrophe, he is nevertheless at the end of his life. The actor also reveals a vulnerability that I'm not sure he's ever shown before. In short, he's terrific. All Is Lost might have worked with a younger and/or lesser-known actor, but Redford's iconic status adds something profound to this tale.
I was no fan of writer/director J.C. Chandor's feature debut Margin Call, about scurrilous investment bankers on the eve of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, primarily because the stakes were maddeningly low for its characters, despite the billions of dollars that were in play. In All Is Lost, you can't ask for higher stakes than a man on a sinking boat in the middle of nowhere. It is a fascinating film and a rewarding moviegoing experience.