Review: J.C. Chandor’s ‘All Is Lost’ catches wind with a great Redford performance

How many of you have been shipwrecked?

My father missed his era. He was born to be a cowboy. He would have had a tremendous life riding the range, working the land for a living, his rifle and his six-gun doing the talking when need be. I think he would have been happy. Like many people, he has experimented with hobbies and passions over the years, and when I was young and my family lived in Florida, there was a time when boating was given some time and attention.

It did not end well.

I can’t say for sure how many boats my dad sank. It’s somewhere between two and fifty. What I know for sure is that when one of your formative memories as a child is being rescued by the Coast Guard after you spent the night on an island because your boat sank, it teaches you a healthy respect for the idea that the ocean, when it wants to, will kick your ass.

I think there is a crazy arrogance to mankind’s exploration of space, and it is a crazy arrogance that defines us as sentient beings. We need that if we are going to continue to grow and evolve at all. We have to be able to defy the elements and the very boundaries of our world if we plan to endure. That same arrogance is what sends people out into the deep ocean. If you’re shipping things, and you’re using those giant Maersk vessels, that seems like as sane a proposition as possible. But if you’re yachting around the world in a boat by yourself and the ocean decides to pound you flat, you are going to be pounded flat. That’s all there is to it. If the contest is man versus ocean, man is going to lose. Maybe mankind can hope to assert some sort of will over the ocean over time, but individually speaking, you cannot fight the ocean. You cannot win. It simply is not possible.

To be fair, the world’s default setting in regards to most people is indifference. The ocean does not want to pound you flat because the ocean does not know you exist. The ocean could not possibly care less that you exist. That is what I think guys like the nameless lead character in J.C. Shandor’s “All Is Lost” count on, and as the film opens, this character wakes up to a blunt reminder that even when the ocean ignores you completely, things can go south very, very quickly.

Robert Redford is an icon, and his place in film history has long since been established. Even if he’d never given a good performance in his life, the Sundance Film Festival is such a powerful voice in film that it’s impossible to imagine what movies would be like without him. During his prime movie star years in the ’70s, he took a fair amount of shit from critics, and I certainly think some of it is earned. Redford has never had the broadest range as an actor, and when he’s outside his comfort zone, he is not always able to make it work. When he is in his comfort zone, he gives sensational movie star performances, many of them iconic, and it would seem to me that J.C. Chandor (writer and director of “All Is Lost”) spent some time contemplating what Redford’s strengths are before offering him the role. This is only Chandor’s second feature, but the jump from “Margin Call” to this is impressive, and it would seem to suggest that Chandor’s going to be a hard guy to pin down to one genre or one voice.

The film begins with a small unexpected hole in the boat waking Redford. He’s by himself, out in the deep waters, and somehow, improbably, he’s hit a shipping container that appears to have fallen off of something. From that one incident, things spiral further and further away from Redford’s control. The film is largely dialogue-free, just a man, his boat, and the ocean, and it is absorbing and beautiful, a very strong experience. Redford serves as a mirror here, underplaying admirably so that on the few moments we see him break, it means something. For the most part, the film leaves plenty of room to imagine yourself in the same circumstances. Chandor doesn’t go for any of the easy outs with the film, cutting away to someone waiting on the land like friends or family, and he doesn’t use flashbacks to break things up. Instead, the film just traces the slow and crushing process by which Redford finds himself surrendering hope.

On a technical level, the film is quietly impressive. The cinematography credit is shared by Frank G. DeMarco (“Margin Call,” “Rabbit Hole”) and Peter Zuccarini, who comes from what looks like a documentary background with a focus on underwater work, and the film is fantastic at portraying the way it feels for Redford, trapped out on the water, reality asserting itself quickly enough at this point that he knows it’s a matter of when, not if. Alex Ebert’s score is emotionally direct and spare in the best ways. Overall, what emerges from the various choices made in terms of how to tell this story is what appears to be excellent taste on Chandor’s part. This is a very restrained and smart approach to telling this story, and it is made with such skill that it seems surprising Chandor is still a young filmmaker. He’s made an old man’s movie, with real perspective about how we face things once we reach a certain point in our lives, but with all the passion and creative daring that young men bring to the table. It’s an appealing combination, and I look forward to whatever Chandor does next.

“All Is Lost” opens today.