It's very, very tempting to refer to Robert Redford's new film as The Old Man and the Sea. But that would be neither accurate nor fair, because All is Lost features an actor who is graceful and empathetic and intelligent and cunning and determined to survive, come what may, in complete ignorance of the number of years he has been breathing air on this planet.
In his heyday, Redford carried around a reputation that he was more of a pretty boy than a real actor, someone who coasted to stardom on his good looks and surface charm, never clawing beneath the surface of the characters he played, and stayed at the top because of his winning smile and unwillingness to take risks. To date, he has received only one Academy Award nomination for his acting (1973's con man caper flick The Sting, opposite Paul Newman), and it was only when he stepped behind the camera that the Hollywood community recognized his abilities, granting him an Oscar for Best Director for 1980's Ordinary People.
In the promotional material for All is Lost, Redford's character is called "Our Man," but he could just as well be called "Any Man" or "Lonely Soul" or "The Drifter." He is sailing alone, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, when the story begins. A container, filled with athletic shoes, rips into the hull of his boat, opening a small hole that looks like a giant chasm when the ocean water begins to flow inside. The sailor patches the hole as best he can, thinking through the best way to handle the situation; he does not panic or mutter to himself or jot his thoughts down in a journal.
In short, he is well-suited to sail alone on a long ocean voyage, adrift on an unforgiving sea. He is prepared for any possible contingency, but the thing about the sea, we learn, is that you can plan and prepare all you want, but a huge body of water is not the most hospitable place in the world for a man, alone on a boat, far from help and running out of supplies.
With an absolute minimum of words to speak, and no other actors on screen, Redford is left to his own devices. One might say that writer/director J.C. Chandor is diabolical; the film hinges entirely on a single performance, which must stand, figuritively and literally, alone. (One might also say that Chandor is bold and courageous; his only previous film is the taut financial thriller Margin Call.) But, as with the temptation to reduce the film to a joke based on the title of a novel by Ernest Hemingway, it is neither fair nor accurate to minimize the environment created by Chandor.
First of all, his script is studiously constructed, establishing a foundation in swift strokes; an extremely brief voice-over casts a foreboding tone, followed immediately by the sickening splintering of the hull, heard but not initially seen. We learn all we must know about the sailor: he is alone, he is well-supplied, he knows what he is doing, within the limits of the disasters that he can anticipate. Incidents are then laid out, much like waves breaking on the coastline; some are huge and monumental within the scope of the story, while others are minor and routine.
Chandor's direction places the point of view very close to the sailor, but cutaways to the vastness of the sea and close-ups of nautical maps offer alternate perspectives on the challenges to come. We hang in there, though, because Redford is intrinsically persuasive in this role; he's intelligent and cunning but not omniscient. His good looks, weathered and wrinkled with age and mileage, matter not a whit to the ocean that threatens to swallow him whole and spit him out dead.
Yet, he is not a completely anonymous character, because knowledge of the actor's past roles inevitably fill in the gaps; maybe this man was once a cowboy, a con man, a downhill racer, a politician, a reporter; maybe he was all of those things, or he was none of those things. Every man has a history, and we know that Redford has enjoyed a particularly colorful career that is still ongoing, and so that baggage gets loaded on to his character, giving him depth beyond what is displayed on screen.
Somehow, Redford conveys a spiritual ache. After all, something must have moved him to undertake the solo voyage, a spirit of adventure or a sense that he wanted to achieve something momentous before his bones withered into the soil. We do not see him praying or reading a holy book or fingering religious artifacts, but his decision to sail thousands of miles says something profound about his appreciation for nature and the environment; call that a spiritual yearning or a desire to commune with Mother Earth or an abiding love of the sea and the sky and open spaces beyond what the eye can see.
Or, maybe it is just the story of a man, 76 years of age at the time of filming, who drew upon his entire life's experience and finally allowed the world into his mind and emotions, opening himself up completely to enable strangers to see what it's like to be 76 years old and in the battle of your life, adrift on an unforgiving sea with no way home.
All is Lost opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 18. It will expand nationwide on Friday, October 25. Visit the official site for more information.