Review: Robert Redford battles the sea and emotions in ‘All Is Lost’

CANNES – Two years ago, at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival,  J.C. Chandor made his feature film debut with “Margin Call.”  The drama about a Wall Street investment bank on the verge of collapse featured a prestige-worthy cast and received solid reviews, but got lost as an out of competition premiere in Park City. Eight months later, however, it became one of the first true direct to VOD success stories and earned Chandor his first Oscar nomination in the best original screenplay category.  Now, he returns with a much different film, “All Is Lost,” which debuted today at the 66th Cannes Film Festival.

Clearly inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Lost” begins with the voice of Robert Redford (we’re never given his character’s name) reading a goodbye letter from a man who believes he’s going to die. He’s given it his best shot, but he’s come to the realization this is the end.  A title card then appears taking us back in time eight days before where we find Redford sleeping on a cushioned seat inside his sailboat. He’s awoken by the sounds of water flowing into the cabin and turns to see there is a gushing hole mostly above water level on the side of his boat. A steel cargo ship container floating in the sea has crashed into the boat creating the hole and the man (Redford) works diligently using a portable anchor to pry it lose.

This random incident sets up the man’s increasingly scary situation. As he patches up the hole with glue and plastic mesh he discovers even more disconcerting news, both his radio and navigation equipment have been damaged by the flood of water.  Traveling alone across the Indian Ocean, he now has no way to contact anyone for help. When his boat encounters a monstrous thunderstorm things take a turn for the worse.

Disappointingly, while he creates one realistic peril after another, Chandor’s screenplay does not give Redford much of a character to play with. The audience learns little about this man except for his perseverance to survive. He does not talk to himself. He is focused and calm and rarely gets emotional about his situation.  And, when he hits his lowest point, Redford isn’t the sort of actor who will deliver one big emotional outburst to win over an audience’s sympathy. Instead, the material dictates his performance be very much of the old school Clint Eastwood variety; just get the job done.  That being said, Chandor puts the legendary actor and filmmaker through the ringer and Redford uses that to his advantage. Stuntmen may have done a majority of the most dangerous work, but you don’t expect a 77-year-old man to be battling waves on the open sea, being flipped in and around a small boat cabin and spending hours in an underwater tank. Frankly, that’s the most impressive aspect of Redford’s work here. There are many harrowing moments when it’s clear that’s really Redford in the frame.  Does that collectively constitute a great performance? It’s certainly up for debate. In this case Redford may earn more respect from an audience than praise.

If the lack of character in his screenplay constitute a slight miscalculation, Chandor does everything he can to make up for it in his direction. A big jump from the suit and tie drama of “Margin Call,” “All Is Lost” features two very impressive set pieces and the action moves along remarkably considering a silent Redford is the sole focus of almost every shot. What’s disappointing, however, is that Chandor puts forth all this effort only to have us feel ambivalent over the sailor’s fate at the end. Shouldn’t we care  just a little?

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release “All Is Lost” on Oct. 25.