DVD Release Date: February 11, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: October 18 limited, 2013; expands through November
Rating: PG-13 (for peril, brief strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 106 min
Directors: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford

If you're going to stare at just one person for over 100 minutes in the midst of a life-and-death struggle – one that swings from violent turbulence to tranquil hopelessness – it might as well be Robert Redford (The Company You Keep). Not just because he makes it compelling (although he does, in a modestly Herculean performance, if there is such a thing), but he's able to reveal the deeper nature of a piece that, narratively speaking, explicitly avoids commentary and definition.

Contemporary cinema has given us some rather remarkable one-man survival tales. From Cast Away to 127 Hours to Life of Pi, Hollywood has created absorbing character studies that have also boasted spectacular and surprisingly inventive (even award-winning) moviemaking – and you could certainly add 2013's critical and box office phenomenon Gravity to that list. It may even be the best of them all.

And now here comes All is Lost, easily the sparsest film of its kind. While others have relied on extended pre-disaster land-based prologues, expository flashbacks, or narrative voice-over, this low-budget indie – about one man stranded in a boat on an endless ocean – is virtually wordless.

It could actually serve on an intriguing double-bill with Gravity. Both movies throw individuals into the perils of our two grandest – and most devastating – expanses of exploration: outer space and the open sea. And in both, we never cut away from the immediacy of their life-threatening peril. We're always in it. There is no escape. Even when calmer moments let us breathe, the threat of death always circles like a patient vulture.

But what makes All is Lost unique is that, unlike Gravity and these other films, it intentionally avoids defining this Man in any way beyond how we see him in the midst of this life-threatening odyssey. We don't even know his name. A brief introductory voice-over of a letter written by the Man lets us know there are loved ones that he'd leave behind, but that's it – and even there, the apology he expresses could suggest he's not necessarily a guy who would earn our sympathies if we knew him better.

So for all intents and purposes, this Man – who is the only character in the entire movie – is a blank slate to us. Emphasis on "to us" because we bring no judgment to him, we have nothing to go on. But to himself this is a man who's lived a long life, who has his own story, and who must organically embody that on some fundamental human level. Consequently, the actor cast as this Man becomes crucial, even vital. And that's where Redford comes in.

Redford, by his persona, brings our collective good will toward him to the role. He provides an immediate "in" to a film that singularly observes rather than examines. With that as a foundation, Redford can then lose himself in the vacuum of this solitude, not compelled to add any dramatic commentary or strain for our sympathies but simply "be" in a very immediate fashion, as circumstances dictate.

Add to that his age, which is a whole texture in itself, particularly in a story where the open sea serves as a metaphor for life. Nature weathers things, and this man is weathered. Nature doesn't give us a choice to be pulled up into its forces, it simply pulls or gives rest at its own indiscriminate whims, whether we're prepared or not. And on top of all that, we don't have to wait for Redford to prove himself as an actor who can carry the weight of an entire movie. He's already done that many times, so we go with him from the start. And once again, Redford proves himself worthy of that faith.

That faith in Redford is what sustains a movie that largely just observes for the first hour. The Man does not immediately descend into fear or worry. He keeps it all at bay through a steady intellect, and so we follow him through that steadiness. There is no time for embittered cries when you're trying to repair a hull breach. There's no time for philosophical musings (or talking to a volleyball) when you're trying to navigate the treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean toward commercial shipping lanes. The Man's MacGyver-esque improvisations are gripping enough on their own, as is his innate humanity. And writer/director J.C. Chandor – who, ironically, was Oscar-nominated for his rather wordy script Margin Call – taps into the Man's humanity not through quick verbal clarity but patient and collective visual revelation (which includes some impressively mounted and rather harrowing sequences). Circumstances reveal character; they reveal the Man.

Then in the second half, the cracks begin to form. The spirit begins to break. Despite heroic efforts, the Man remains lost. Adrift. Seemingly the butt of a cruel cosmic joke. And that's when the crisis goes from the physical to the existential. This man's crisis initially evoked our sympathy, but now it also evokes our empathy. We've gone from rooting for him to identifying with him. Identifying with that dark night of the soul. Identifying with the eternal question of "Why?" that he never has to ask or even meditate on because his defeat and despair so wholly personify it.

As All is Lost approaches the end, it's natural to anxiously wonder what that ending will be. Will Man be rescued or will he perish? Will he fight to the end or will he give up while he still has strength and breath? And will that end make all of what we've sat through worthwhile? While I won't reveal the ending here, I will say that it works as a poetic final beat because it can be taken literally or spiritually, or even both.

 CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Some whiskey is consumed.
  • Language/Profanity: A couple of S-words. One F-word is screamed.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
  • Violence/Other: The man’s hand is gashed pretty badly. Trauma related to enduring a violent storm at sea. In general, the theme of a man’s life being in danger, helpless. 

Publication date: October 24, 2013